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Big Dog Verses

December 30, 2014

Have you ever noticed that we evangelicals have “big dog verses” in our Bibles?  What I mean by that is that there are verses that we say, consciously or unconsciously, are the key verses through which we interpret the rest of the Bible.  Perhaps the most common example is John 3:3 in which Jesus says to the visiting Nicodemus “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 

We’ve taken that verse and constructed a whole theology around the phrase “born again.”  Never mind that Jesus never told anyone else that they must be born again, we’ve got our big dog verse and we need to tell everyone that they need to be born again.  There is no time to think about why he said this to that one particular man and never said it to others, we need to get busy and shout it from the housetops.

This past weekend my adult Sunday School class was studying the book of Habakkuk and we stopped to consider Habakkuk 2:4 – “Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous (or just) will live by his faith.”  We also looked at the three passages in the New Testament where this was quoted and applied in a somewhat different way.  I’ve always been amused by the fact that Paul and the writer of Hebrews did something we are told we should never do; take a verse out of context and apply it somewhat differently.  But in any event, this too is a big dog verse.

In cases like these two big dog verses aren’t a serious problem.  Even though Jesus probably gave this born-again idea to Nicodemus, someone secure in his religious identity, as a way to shake that identity we probably don’t cause all that much harm by applying it to an unbeliever who doesn’t grasp the core concept.  But the context of the verse should make us pause before using it in another context.

Big dog verses get a lot more problematical on other issues.  Take the issue of the role of women.  We take a few big dog verses and say “This is what the Bible says is the proper role of women.”  We then look at other verses, notably where Jesus or Paul actually interact with or refer to women, and interpret them through our big dog verses.  We end up saying things like “Paul didn’t actually call Junia an apostle or Phoebe a deacon, what he meant was…” and claim we know this because of the big dog verses.

Or we take condemnations on homosexuality and eating shellfish that sit just a few verses apart in the Old Testament and say that one is a big dog verse and the other is not.  We create categories for the Old Testament law and say that some laws are moral laws and apply today while others are ceremonial laws and can be safely ignored.  Never mind that the Old Testament makes no such distinction, our big dog verses make it easy for us.

This is not meant to be a commentary about either the role of women or homosexuality.  My concern is this – big dog verses, or the search for them, makes the Bible a collection of individual instructions and not a single ongoing story.  When we use this method we run the risk of becoming Pharisees; of having a list of things to believe and do, often without an underlying reason for that believing and doing.

Christianity’s troubled history with slavery was caused by big dog verses.  No matter how clear the overall biblical message was about God’s concern for the oppressed there were some big dog verses, Colossians 3:22 for example, that were held up as proof that the Bible endorses slavery.  So for generations large segments of evangelicalism could not bring themselves to oppose slavery.

Big dog verses are at the root of almost all controversies within the church.  I Corinthians 11:6 is an example – “For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.”  Different ways of understanding and applying that to our modern culture have resulted in disagreement.    This gets more complicated as the passage in Corinthians goes on.  By verse 10 we are reading – “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”  Oh yes, “because of the angels!”  That explains it.

So how do we get over the big dog syndrome?  It starts with accepting that the Bible is one story, not a collection of thousands of instructions.  This introduces the need for humility and grace in applying the things we read in the Bible.  It is on this micro, single-verse, level that the meaning is most susceptible to a variety of individual interpretations.  It is also on this level that we are most prone to read into the Bible beliefs we already hold; most prone to proof-text our beliefs.

And it is here where we are, at the same time, most prone to mock another’s big dog belief and defend our own.  It is here were we can mock the Jewish separation of meat and dairy based on “you will not boil the kid in its mother’s milk.” and go right on and insist that the husband rules the home while the wife submits.

Only grace allows us to earnestly study our Bibles knowing our own weakness makes that study imperfect.  Only grace keeps us from scorning those who have come to disagreement.  Only grace allows us to let the Bible speak to us personally, even if the context is different, while respecting others who do the same.

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From → Christianity

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