As I continue to mature (and those that know me well will recognize with me that I have a long way to go) I am becoming more and more convinced of the importance of the rule of faith in guiding my life, especially when it comes to interpretations of scripture and where I draw lines of fellowship. And as I continue to mature I am becoming more convinced that as faith communities we should spend more time uniting around a core set of beliefs instead of arguing over what in many ways are minor areas of interpretation. If we did this, we would do a better job of living into Jesus’s prayer in John 17 “that all of my people might be one.”
Let me explain. The rule of faith is not something that is talked about often but has been a major part of Christianity since the very beginning. Almost all Christian faith communities today would profess in some way a belief in the authority of scripture and use it to help guide their decision making process. And yet most faith communities argue within themselves and with outsiders about how those very scriptures should be interpreted. Most of us have been taught to think logically and critically and yet it has become apparent to anyone who has the courage to admit it that while all Christians go to scripture seeking to understand it as best they can we all come away with different understandings. A simple example can be found in John 13 when Jesus washes the disciples feet and proclaims now that I have done this you should to. Some faith groups see this as a clear command and believe we must practice foot washing today while others see it as an example of servant leadership. No agreement can be reached, and sadly too often unity is destroyed. Yet both groups are trying to faithfully understand scripture and have pure intentions. Many might assume this example is a minor one, but what if the situation in question is women speaking publicly in a church gathering on Sunday. Some interpreters favor 1 Corinthians 11. Others favor 1 Corinthians 14. Both are honestly trying to deal with scripture but they can not agree. Again, they often find themselves at odds and unity is destroyed. They can not remain in fellowship, often assuming the opposing group doesn’t really love Jesus or believe in the Bible.
But what if we based our unity and understandings around the rule of faith? Could we not unite on that and leave room for differing opinions in other areas of interpretation?
So what is the rule of faith? The rule of faith is the basic fundamental teaching that the church has passed down from generation to generation since the time of the apostles. It is what Paul may call, “those matters of first importance.” It is the understanding that God created the world, that sin corrupted it, and that God has gone about the process of restoring relationship with us. It is a belief that Jesus, who is divine, also came in the flesh, lived, died, and rose again on the third day. And it is the recognition that those who believe in this Jesus and follow his teachings will inherit salvation. That basic understanding has been passed down by the church for nearly 2000 years and that basic understanding, while possibly an over simplification, sums up the majority of theology that any Christian group believes. It is that basic understanding that guided the early church. Remember, the early church did not have a New Testament. The New Testament, as we know it, was not finalized until sometime in the fourth century. While there were commonly recognized books in different areas, those lists did not agree. How did the church find unity? How did they know what to believe? They were guided by the rule of faith. Does this teaching conform to the rule of faith? Does it agree with our basic understanding of truth as revealed in Jesus Christ? The rule of faith becomes the lens through which all interpretations must pass.
So, does this mean any interpretation goes? That I can just read the Bible and make things up? Of course not. I still need to read the Bible critically. I need to try and understand Greek and Hebrew and search for the author’s original intent and meaning. But, it’s a recognition that there is room for differing opinions. It’s an understanding that if someone interprets a scripture different than me, as long as it doesn’t violate the rule of faith, it can be just as valid as my interpretation. It’s realizing that as long as we agree on the basic story of scripture we can disagree on what the thousand year reign in Revelation is talking about or whether Genesis 1 is seven literal days or whether it’s merely representative; we can still be in fellowship together.
Now, I fully admit it can be scary to read scripture this way because we (I) like to have all of the answers and this makes interpretation more nebulous. But I’ve come to understand, I don’t have to know all the answers. And the people I’m trying to reach with the gospel, those that are truly unchurched, don’t need every detail figured out. They simply need the basic story of scripture. They need someone who believes in Jesus to love them just as they are. And, they need to see a Christian community that is united and not divided. “I pray that they may be one so that the world will believe that you sent me.”