The Risks and Rewards of Mentioning Those Parts of the Old Testament

As something of a new pastor, I've found my transition into vocational ministry punctuated by a series of memorable first-time experiences. Some were trivial, such as the first time I rearranged my books to conform to a classification system. Some were much more important such as the first time I officiated at a wedding. Some were quaintly baffling such as the first time a church member informed me that I couldn't rope off some unneeded overflow pews because, after all, we're Baptists and "Baptists believe in freedom."

In keeping with this phenomenon, a while back I preached a single sermon which led to two different firsts.

As a former youth minister, I found that the morally dubious elements of the Old Testament were a major stumbling block for many when they first began to seriously investigate the faith. The thinking often went like this: "Isn't the Bible supposed to be God's book? Aren't we supposed to be the creations of God, the bearers of His image in some sense? Why then do we, with our God-given ethical sensibilities, find His Scripture, His commands and even His actions so repugnant at times?" This isn't merely a problem for students—one which passes as adolescent idealism gives way to grownup pragmatism. Instead, I've spoken with several adult friends and family members who cite grizzly and disquieting episodes from the Old Testament as the reason they either refuse to embrace Christianity or worse—why they renounced the faith after having been raised within it.

So it seemed to me, as a newly minted pastor, that I ought to address this issue…officially…from the pulpit.

The sermon was titled "The Nastiness of the Old Testament," and it was based on Luke 24:36-48, specifically the passage in which Christ, in the fullness of His resurrected life, turned to His disciples and "opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures" (vs. 45). To illustrate the issues at stake, I drew attention to some of the less obviously Christian elements of the Hebrew Bible—for example, the dubious advice of Ecclesiastes 7:16-18, the murderous sentiment of Psalms 137:7-9 and the startling earthiness of Ezekiel 23:20. Against the backdrop of these verses and the puzzling questions they represented, I argued that Jesus is the interpretive key to the Old Testament. Jesus is that Person who helps us understand what was truly central and what was more peripheral and perhaps culturally bound in God's dealings with Israel. He is the supreme revelation of God's character, which confirmed previous revelation while at the same time relativizing parts of it; the final word, so to speak.

I understood that I was walking on thin ice, theologically speaking. I was articulating ideas which could lead to an incipient Marcionism in which Jesus was set in explicit opposition to the Old Testament. I was careful; at least I thought that I was. I honed the outline. I repeatedly affirmed the Old Testament's scriptural authority. I quoted the words of prominent and unquestionably doctrinally conservative churchmen where relevant. I included in the bulletin statements made by a state-level denominational body within the SBC, which essentially took the same approach. I felt I had taken every possible precaution to ensure the sermon would both be orthodox and recognized as orthodox by my congregation.

Yet despite all my efforts, there was a complaint—the first I had ever received in connection with a sermon. The Tuesday after I preached, I received a phone call from an influential church member, Martha (not her real name). Martha indicated she wanted to come by the office in a couple days and speak with me about Sunday's sermon. The tone of her voice led me to believe she didn't intend to drop by with some belated compliments. I asked her if she could provide me with any specifics; she simply repeated that she wanted to talk about the sermon.

I spent the next two days racking my brain as to where exactly I had bungled things. Perhaps I had stuttered at a crucial point and a bit of important nuance had been lost. Maybe my eyes skipped over a part of my outline, and I had forgotten to utter some vital caveat. I listened to a recording of the sermon twice to discern where I had dropped the ball and inadvertently wandered into crypto-Gnosticism, but I couldn't find anything. The outline was solid, and I had followed the outline to a T.

Then came the big day: Martha arrived at the agreed upon time, entered my office, and we both sat together at a table to discuss the sermon. I thought I had prepared myself for what was coming. I thought I had anticipated at least the broad outlines of her objections and had readied a number of winsome rebuttals for when the time came. I was wrong. What she said was so totally unexpected that it literally left me speechless.

"I felt that Sunday's sermon was offensive."

"Oh?" I said. (So it wasn't a doctrinal matter!) A mixture of relief and confusion washed over me. "Offensive in what sense?"

"It was obscene; those verses you mentioned…well, it seemed inappropriate. If my friends had attended last Sunday, I would have been embarrassed. I'm glad they weren't here."

Martha—a mature Christian, a teacher at the church and a strong proponent of the so-called Conservative Resurgence in our denomination—objected to my reading the Bible (or at least parts of it) in church. Not even reading it! The passages she most objected to weren't read aloud; I merely projected them on the overhead as they appeared in our pew Bibles and commented on them briefly and obliquely. That was enough, apparently.

I reminded her, as one evangelical to another, the verses she so objected to were in the Bible. She knew that. Martha replied that we probably just shouldn't read them in church and that if we did we should do so in small classroom settings—possibly separated by gender. In other words, if we had to acknowledge the existence of these verses at all, it would be best to do it behind closed doors.

Flabbergasted as I was, I offered a few half-hearted defenses and hurried the conversation to its close. I mentioned the offensiveness of the verses in view was part of the point of the sermon. I noted that however much we might like to wish them away, they were part of the canon and deserved the respect of engagement at the very least. I said that skeptics absolutely love to bandy these Scriptural bits around as cause for doubt; if we address the issue, we can offer meaningful rebuttals, possibly even preempting the critics and framing the matter in a sympathetic way.

Martha didn't seem entirely convinced, but she had voiced her concerns and didn't see the need to prolong the conversation. She left the office graciously and has continued to attend the church.

As I said though, this sermon was the source of two firsts: Just as it was the first to elicit a complaint, it was also the first to draw in a visitor on Sunday morning by virtue of its title appearing on the church's lawn sign.

Leah (again, not her real name) had been raised by strictly observant Mormon parents in Utah. In college, however, Leah had rejected the religion of her upbringing—indeed all religion. After graduating, marrying and becoming a mother, she had begun to wonder if there might actually be something to spirituality after all. She set herself to investigate the various options on offer in the Los Angeles area and as a part of that quest tried to read through the Bible with an open but critical mind. Sadly, she didn't get very far. After encountering the bloody extravagances of the Pentateuch, Leah concluded the Bible was morally deficient and therefore didn't have any guidance to offer—that her time was better spent elsewhere...perhaps listening to the Buddhist priest at the local temple.

However, one day while driving down the street, she noticed an unassuming church marquee advertising the upcoming sermon: "The Nastiness of the Old Testament." It struck a chord. Here was a church that was intending to address publically the very thing that had soured her on Christianity. Leah attended the service...and another. Then she wrote me a lengthy email explaining her spiritual situation. Then she came again. Then came another email with some questions that I did my best to answer...then more questions...then a sit-down meeting with Leah, her husband, her children and me.

A few months ago, Leah was baptized into the Christian faith. Since our first meeting, she has moved to another town and had other teachers and pastors who have no doubt had an immeasurable influence on her burgeoning spirituality. Even so, we keep in touch. When she speaks about coming to know Jesus as her Lord and Savior, that sermon—with all its less than savory biblical references—appears at the beginning of her testimony. The very same sermon that offended a conservative Christian ultimately led another person to trust in Christ.

I suppose at this point, it would be easy to derive some triumphalist conclusion from the above about preaching every part of the Bible without compromise or apology, but that's not really my intention. I can sympathize with Martha, at least a little bit; however, much of the Book of Ezekiel revels in off-color references to the anatomy of livestock. I can't say I'm enthusiastic about them. I can only imagine what sort of impact it would have had on my own development if my childhood pastors had dwelt at length on the more gruesome and genocidal elements of Joshua without compromise or apology. There are some portions of Scripture that make modern Christians rightly uncomfortable, and to fixate on them for their own sake from the pulpit would be obnoxious and uncharitable.

Those verses still exist; they're still a part of the Bible, so we can't simply ignore them. Then again, why would we want to? Responsible parents don't just refuse to discuss delicate matters such as sex or drugs with their children; they know that in a modern context these are unavoidable issues. If the parents don't broach these topics with their kids, someone else certainly will—someone who may have a very different agenda than that of a loving father or mother. In the same way, if sympathetic pastors and teachers don't broach the issue of the Old Testament's occasional nastiness with their congregations, someone else will. These opportunists (the Richard Dawkinses and Christopher Hitchenses of the world) won't present the trouble spots as challenging problems to be addressed, but as faith-destroying scandals to be relished—and they certainly won't allow Jesus to have the last word.

As such, our churches simply must address the Old Testament's sometimes puzzling moral character, at least occasionally. That's OK, though, for with our interpretive key close at hand—Jesus' words and example—the experience can be a fruitful one, as Leah's response shows. We may trust that, as the author of the Book of Hebrews said, while God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son—and that more clearly and unambiguously than ever before. As for the possible offense that Christians may take to it all, I think we can tough it out. Leah's salvation and the salvation of countless more such as her is certainly worth our discomfort.