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Theological Tradition: A Long and Dangerous Road

Slavery, discrimination and contemporary conflicts surrounding race did not suddenly appear out of nowhere.

So argued Karen Woods, associate pastor of missions at Trinity Baptist Church in Conyers, Georgia, in her thesis on race relations in the local church, written as a requirement for her master of divinity degree.

The dysfunction of racism, Woods wrote, grew out of long theological traditions that manipulated the Bible to justify one race’s subjugation over another.

Sadly, although our ancestors were people of their time, this theological context sat squarely on a certain systemic interpretation of the Bible that dehumanized people.

Woods’ thesis reminded me that beliefs surrounding a variety of issues these days result not from spontaneous decisions or platitudes.

Rather, they emerge from long-held convictions and traditions that require (consciously or otherwise) theological gerrymandering and interpretative acrobats over a long period of time.

If we are still embroiled in the consequences of racism even today, then it should not surprise us that contemporary debates over other hotbed topics will last well into the next generation of Christendom.

Traditions and experience inform how we read the Bible, and shaping our reading of God’s Word according to such embedded ideologies threatens to undermine the authority of Scripture.

The worst part is when we declare that God agrees with our positions rather than change our minds when we know some things simply contradict Christ’s or the Bible’s teachings.

Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, writing for The Christian Century, addressed the dangers associated with biased interpretations of Scripture.

He recalled Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address delivered on March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln lamented the toxicity that imbues any theology that forces ideology on humanity’s understanding of God.

According to Lincoln, “Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes [God’s] aid against the other … The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln went on to declare that the institution of slavery – 250 years in the making – will not come untangled as easily as many people in the Union had hoped.

Yet, it was imperative to “finish the work we are in” so as to bring about harmony to a nation divided by political ideology.

Lincoln hit the problem squarely on the head.

Our debates surrounding the most pressing issues of the day, such as gun control, environmental stewardship, war, immigration and refugee policy, and federal budgets must indeed play out in the philosophical and political arenas, but must avoid any declaration that God is taking one side over another.

Otherwise, we too will be embroiled in divisions that rend the very fabric of our nation.

Ultimately, when a Christian surrenders to God, she surrenders her “rights” in this world to become a fully recognized citizen in God’s kingdom.

It is to sacred Scripture that a citizen of the kingdom submits, not to any man-made document or system of government.

God’s call is a singular mission to march toward the cause of the cross. This results from self-denial and, sometimes, death, if not physically, then of those embedded convictions that conflict with Christ’s values.

Most significant, submitting to Christ’s lordship means divesting our theologies about God and social politics that perpetuate some of the more hostile elements of faith that play out in our places of worship, politics and the public square.

Without this important reformation in our churches, we remain steadfast in the very bigotry that our faith condemns.

Without analyzing the long-held beliefs that shape our worldview, we fail to “be transformed in the renewal of our mind,” as Paul so aptly commands in Romans 12:1-2.

My prayer for the new year is that Christians will have robust debates in an otherwise uncommon election season.

Yet, in doing so, we must not use religion as a weapon to wield but as a balm to heal.

We should use Scripture to transform our thinking rather than support our myopic opinions about so many issues we face today.

Christ, not the fascination with our own interpretations of him, should be Lord over our lives.

Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Conyers, Georgia. He is the author of “Awe and Trembling: Reflections for the Christian Journey,” a book of articles and homilies. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Baptist Spirituality, and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: EthicsDaily.com’s documentary, “Beneath the Skin,” explores how racism continues inside and outside the church and highlights how Baptists are working together in proactive ways to break down the racial and ethnic walls of division in faithfulness to the Bible’s moral vision.