A person’s soul is like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon: its development should not be hurried; its emergence should not be rushed; its walls should not be forced open. Each soul has its own God-given rhythm, its own fullness of time. No one else should take a human soul into his or her hands and manipulate it; because, when a human soul is manipulated—whether by flashy charisma or high-octane emotionalism or pious moralizing—that soul gets abused, twisted, and distorted. It withers at the touch of force.
When it comes to your faith and life before God, no one has the right to tell you what you must believe or how you must behave. Only God has that right. No one else can pass final judgment on your heart. Only God knows enough about you to judge you, and God’s judgment always arises out of holy and saving love.
That’s why I believe that churches should seek to persuade, encourage, and invite, not to prescribe, demand, and insist. Devotion is to be voluntary, not mandatory. Faith is a free response to the love and grace of God, not a forced response to the authority of a creed or the power of a person.
From time to time, people ask me, “What does your church believe about . . . ?” or “What is your church’s stand on. . .?”, and my answer, which frustrates some people, is basically this: “We believe that you should study the Bible, learn about the ways of Jesus, listen to the viewpoints and opinions of other people, enter into debate and even disagreement, and make up your own mind about what you believe.” Our stand is for your right and freedom to take the stand you believe God wants you to take. If you want to be told exactly what to believe, how to think, and what to do, then you will find freedom, the freedom we try to extend each other in this church, to be bewildering.
That does not mean we have no standards. Jesus is our standard. We are his followers; he is our Lord. We don’t think and do whatever we want to think and do; we want our minds to be shaped by the truth of Jesus and we want our behavior to be shaped by the love of Jesus. The Bible is central and crucial for us; because we believe that, when we listen to the Bible, we are hearing the voice of Jesus, who is the flesh-and-blood Word of God.
But, no one understands Jesus completely or interprets the Bible perfectly. We are limited and prone to bias. Our experiences and our prejudices color how we read the Bible. The truth of Scripture is too important to place in the hands of the few, so we place it in the hands of the many. We trust people to interpret the Bible for themselves, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit and in dialogue with other Christians, including scholars who have given their life to its understanding. We are not only free to do this work of interpretation; we are responsible to do it. Then, we are also free and responsible to live by what we have understood, especially for trying, however stumblingly, to be like Jesus in our love for other people and for the world.