Have a debate, risk lively interaction

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

The instant reaction of a one-time minister of religion to my question, ‘Do you think Jesus might have been married?’ was, ‘No, sure we all know Jesus didn’t sin!’

He must have seen the look of astonishment on my face, for he sought to cover his embarrassment by changing the subject.

My astonishment was not due to his implied denial that Jesus might have married, it was the suggestion that the Master would have sinned had he not remained single. The fact that the Bible is silent on the subject speaks volumes. We’re not told that he did and we’re not told that he didn’t.

What I find more than a little worrying is that people allow themselves to hold onto beliefs that they have inherited rather than having arrived at after rigorous investigation. The next question has got to be, what else might be seen as central pillars of our faith that have not been tested in the crucible of robust and honest scrutiny?

Much of Christendom teaches that we must confess our sins and shortcomings to God. This is, perhaps, based on a misinterpretation of a single verse – always dangerous to base an entire doctrine on a single unsupported verse – in 1John 1 v 9: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins...’ the implication being that if we don’t do our bit, he won’t do his.

But it’s more than that. That interpretation totally disempowers the sacrifice of Christ by adding requirements for the gift of salvation. Keep in mind the cry from the cross: ‘It is finished!’

In a Bible class I was associated with some years ago, there was a long-running debate about that verse, but when one of our number produced an influential theological paper arguing convincingly that the verse in question not addressed to believers, the subject was dropped like a hot brick.

Why do you think that might be? Something to do with the need for the industry of religion to keep people coming back when the whole thrust of the message of the gospel is to ‘go into all the world...’

Even the word ‘fellowship’ has had every ounce of its meaning drained from it. I well remember a friend who later became Moderator of the General Assembly, getting a roasting by his eldership for daring to suggest that to turn up at Sunday Service, week after week and sit for an hour staring at the back of somebody’s head for an hour is not fellowship.

‘Let’s scrap the failed system,’ he pleaded. ‘Let’s tear out the rows of pews and replace them with chairs arranged in a circle. Let the minister stand in the middle, read a scripture, make a comment, pose a question and then ask: “What do you think of that?” and actually have a debate, risk some lively interaction!’

But the poor man was shouted down.

Ross Paterson, missionary in China for the last 30 years, put it well as he described Paul the Apostle. He said: ‘Paul was as committed to filling pews after his Damascus Road experience as he was to emptying them before it, but he never sat on one.’ And we wonder why organised religion is dying on its feet? As my old mother used to say: ‘It’s dead,if it had the sense to stiffen!’