Should we stop reading the New Testament letters for a while?

Should we stop reading the New Testament letters for a while?

Sometimes I wonder if the Christian church would do well to read nothing in the Scriptures but the Gospels for the next twelve months. No Moses, no Isaiah, no Paul, no Peter. Just Jesus.

It seems to me that one of the more detrimental consequences of a high view of the Bible is that we tend to treat every part as having the same status. If Leviticus is the word of God, then I expect it to be as relevant and as authoritative to me as the teaching of Jesus. Similarly I expect that when I read the letters of Paul, I hear the word of the Lord as surely as I do when I read the stories of Jesus.

But while we might take the entire Bible as bringing God’s word to us, some parts are weightier than others. I’m not called to follow Moses, or Peter, or Paul, but Jesus. That means that Jesus’s way, Jesus’s teaching, Jesus’s example, and Jesus’s story are the centre around which everything else should revolve. I read the Old Testament because it forms the backdrop against which the story of Jesus is told. If I don’t understand the Old Testament story I will misunderstand much of the story of Jesus. I read the New Testament letters because they show me the early Christian community trying to figure out what it meant to live as followers of Jesus in the period after his resurrection and ascension. So just as the Old Testament story points forward to Jesus, so the New Testament letters point back to Jesus.

I think however that there have been times when I have been guilty of forgetting this, of treating the Old Testament books and the New Testament letters as though they have the same standing as the Gospels. For example, for a long time I tried to find a way of reconciling the Old Testament commands to go to war and Jesus’s command to love one’s enemy. This usually saw me with some kind of middle position that justified the use of violence in certain contexts. What I would do now is argue that Jesus’s teaching of love for one’s enemy is what is authoritative for me, and I would interpret the Old Testament commands to war through that lens. In other words I would not use them to justify the use of violence.

Or take the commands about the ordering of households found within New Testament letters. These demand the subordination of wives to husbands, slaves to masters, and children to parents. They ask believers to live within the systems of first century patriarchy, yet to infuse them with the virtues of Jesus such as love, grace, and service. Yet when I read the Gospels Jesus directly challenges these patriarchal structures, not as some kind of proto-feminist asserting the human rights of women, but because these structures prevented women from following him and living the values of his kingdom. Where do we start in understanding the relationship between men and women today? Many of my friends and colleagues start with the Bible’s creation narratives and read them in light of the subordination narratives found in the New Testament letters. This yields the idea that there is a God ordained order in which men are to lead and women to be supportive followers. The Gospels are then read in a way that sees Jesus endorsing this. I think this gets things the wrong way round. The lens through which I need to read the creation narratives and the New Testament letters is the lens of Jesus, who directly challenged the validity of the patriarchal system. Here is the Jesus who declared we should call no person father other than our Father God in heaven; who declared that his brothers and sisters and mother were not his family but the gathered community of faith; who declared he came to set family member against family member; who had women followers who abandoned their position within the patriarchal system to follow him around Palestine. All of these signal a dramatic challenge to the patriarchal structures of his era. If I read the New Testament letters through this lens, the subordination commands of the New Testament letters seem to be an accommodation to the values of the day, presumably called forth by the fact that this was not a dimension of culture the early Christian movement was yet ready or able to dismantle.

It’s only a playful suggestion, but this is why I wonder whether it would be good for us to abandon reading anything but the Gospels for a year or so. Ultimately we need both the Old Testament and the New Testament letters to help us understand Jesus, but a good dose of nothing but Jesus might just help us get our interpretation of the rest of Scripture right by making Jesus the lens through which we read everything else.

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