For countless numbers of people, the Bible is the most important guide to living a faithful Christian life. With an estimated 5 billion copies printed between 1815 and 1975, the Bible remains the top-selling book of all time.
What the Bible really means to its readers, however, has been a consistent source of debate.
In Gallup's annual poll of beliefs and values in 2014, 50 percent of Americans said the Bible is the actual word of God. Of that group, 22 percent said it should be taken literally, and 28 percent said it could be interpreted in multiple ways. Another 28 percent said it is the inspired, but not literal, word of God, and a final 18 percent said the Bible is "fables, legends and history written by men."
For United Methodists, the Bible is the "Word of God through the words of human beings inspired by the Holy Spirit," (United Methodist Book of Discipline, "Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task," Paras. 104-105). It is the source of all needed for salvation and the "guide for faith and practice."
The Discipline further says Scripture should be read within a community of faith and informed by that tradition; individual texts should be interpreted in light of their place in the Bible as a whole; the original context and intent of each text must be considered; and attempts to understand Scripture should consider tradition, experience and reason.
The core beliefs of the Christian faith, then, are "revealed through Scripture, illuminated by tradition, vivified (brought to life) in personal and corporate experience, and confirmed by reason."
Despite those declarations, United Methodists do not always agree about how to interpret Scripture and its role in understanding essential affirmations of faith.
Hamilton is lead pastor at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and author of Making Sense of the Bible. Watson is academic dean/vice president for academic affairs and associate professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
Most United Methodist clergy agree that using tradition, reason and experience to interpret Scripture is important, Hamilton says, but "where faithful United Methodists disagree is whether what Paul and Moses say about same-sex intimacy is more like what Paul and Moses say about slavery or ... justice and love."
United Methodists agree that verses on slavery "do not reflect God's affirmation of slavery," he says. Likewise, children should not be stoned to death for persistent disobedience, and the idea of women serving as religious teachers and ordained clergy is "in keeping with God's will."
The conflict over same-sex relationships and other issues, Hamilton says, points to "a deeper question about the nature of Scripture."
Watson says it is a matter of Scriptural interpretation for many Christians, with some believing they should not affirm same-sex intimacy because verses referring to it are "unequivocally negative." Likewise, Jesus' affirmation of marriage as between a man and a woman in Matthew 19 should settle the debate.
"Others believe ... passages that condemn same-sex intimacy are not binding for people today because they reflect an ancient worldview and an outdated understanding of human sexuality," he says. "(They ask) if we are content to regard passages around slavery as outdated and no longer binding, why shouldn't we make the same moves with regard to same-sex intimacy?"
Different interpretations stem from how people describe "the overarching logic of the Scriptures," says the Rev. Elaine Robinson, interim vice president/dean of academic affairs and professor of Methodist studies and Christian theology at Saint Paul School of Theology in Overland Park, Kansas. That leads to a variety of considerations, including whether God's grace and love take priority over all else.
"Do the Scriptures present certain sinful attitudes or behaviors that indicate we are not in right relationship with God and repenting of these must be a priority in the life of faith?" Robinson asks. "Does science help us understand things today which our biblical forebears could not know and, thus, require us to read some texts in light of the best scientific knowledge of our day — something (John) Wesley, himself, tried to do?"
What is uniquely United Methodist, Robinson says, is "our communal covenant ... to read the Bible in light of tradition, experience and reason."
Role of Scripture
Watson questions whether that commitment or a "confession of the basics of Christian faith" is what really "binds us together."
He believes using Scripture, reason, tradition and experience (often referred to as the quadrilateral or the Wesleyan quadrilateral) to answer difficult theological questions "has not worked" and on some issues has instead produced "entirely contradictory conclusions."
Those tools, he says, are only useful if they clarify "aspects of the tradition we regard as normative and the way in which we understand experience." How to interpret Scripture, what constitutes tradition and how far reason should go in revising beliefs also need to be resolved.
"If we cannot gain greater clarity on these matters, there is little hope of our gaining agreement about ethical matters such as same-sex intimacy," he says.
Adding to the confusion is a growing tendency to treat each of the four as equal, says the Rev. Bill Arnold, Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.
Based on Wesleyan affirmations in the Discipline, "the revelation of God comes only through Scripture," Arnold says. "The other three merely illuminate, vivify or confirm that revelation." Scripture, then, is the primary source for discerning the core of faith; the others are secondary.
"Disagreements will never be resolved," he says, "until we have an honest conversation about ... what it means to take Scripture as primary in our theological task."
Are the debates healthy? Hamilton believes they are, if approached with humility and love.
"They are a part of how we work together to discern God's will," he says. "When they become unhealthy is when either or both sides in the debate are unable to say, ‘I could be wrong about this, and you might be right.'"
Arnold acknowledges that United Methodist tradition allows disagreement on matters unrelated to core beliefs. The Discipline quotes Wesley as saying, "As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think."
However, Arnold says Wesley also cautioned against adopting too broad an acceptance of opinions about theology and Christian practice.
"If we follow Mr. Wesley ... I think it is detrimental to our church to assume we should be able to agree to disagree about every issue before us," he says.
For Robinson, disagreements are neither inherently healthy nor unhealthy.
"Some congregations are destroyed by disagreements; others are able to allow different points of view to coexist," she says. "The Wesleyan way is to hold the ‘essentials' in common – our human sinfulness, preveniently graced, justification by faith, and sanctification or growing into the fullness of love – and allow ‘opinions' to dwell in our midst."
Robinson urges people to consider 1 Corinthians 13:12: "For now we see in a mirror dimly."
"We don't have the full knowledge of God and always need to approach our reading of Scripture with humility," she says. "Unfortunately, we live in a time when people often prefer to be right, rather than to listen to one another and, perhaps, even learn something from someone who holds a different understanding."
For Watson, the problem isn't that United Methodists disagree. It's that they disagree on so many important matters.
He says the denomination would benefit from resuming the practice of reading the Bible in light of basic rules of faith, as the early church did.
"We often read Scripture very individualistically, taking little account of the ways in which the believing community through the centuries has interpreted and applied these sacred texts," he says. "The believing community of both past and present, however, provides us with a fuller interpretation than we could derive on our own and corrects us when we fall into error."
Interpreting texts in light of their place in the Bible and considering their original context and intent would also provide clarity.
"These are often seen as protections against ‘proof texting,' which occurs when Scripture becomes a tool to support our own agendas, rather than a means of grace by which we come to know and love God," he says. "We must allow God to form us by our reading of Scripture, rather than trying to marshal the authority of Scripture in service to our own agendas."
Ultimately, Robinson says she sees the Bible as "more of a process than a product ... something that is living and always informing our life in God in new ways and new contexts."
Regardless of the disagreements, she hopes all United Methodists will know the Bible as "a living word to us anew in each generation, but ever faithful to God and to the word incarnate in Christ."
Tita Parham is a communications consultant, writer and editor based in Apopka, Fla.