Which bits of the Bible do you miss out?

Which bits of the Bible do you miss out?

Oh, if you are starting to huff and puff about that question, I hear you, I really do. After all, once you start to edit the Bible you’re making God in your own image, putting up idols of your heart and mucking about with the eternal truth of the ages which will stand undiminished, unchanged and with everlasting immutability forever and ever, Amen. Right?

But seriously. Which bits do you miss out?

Unless you are keeping kosher in the kitchen, don’t borrow or lend with interest and are prepared to take off all those mixed fibre clothes you are wearing now (yes, right now, take them off!) then you are doing it already.

I preached last Sunday morning all about how I believe women and men to be created with equal dignity and worth. I said I would believe it whether I was a Christian or not because it is right anyway.

Then by the evening I found myself in a church full of wandering eyes, sniggers and general incredulity as someone read the second lesson at Evensong.

It was this passage from the letter to Titus.

But as for you, teach what is consistent with sound doctrine. Tell the older men to be temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance.

Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behaviour, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited.

Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.

Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to answer back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

Now, there we have a passage where women and men certainly are not regarded as equals and where slave owning is not so much as challenged but supported directly by the text.

You know, the “so long as you are nice to them” argument in favour of slavery just ain’t kosher around here. It ain’t halal to us in St Mary’s. It ain’t righteous, godly or holy. And neither is treating women and men as anything other than of equal dignity and worth.

Now, as a result of that, I found myself doing some quick mental editing to the prayers and giving thanks to God that we have learned so much more about the world since the letter to Titus was written.

But what would you do? Would you put a note in the lectionary to ensure this isn’t read out loud the next time we get to that place in the cycle of readings that we use for Evensong? Unless I’m much mistaken, the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary that we use in the morning have carefully and quietly nudged that passage out of use – it simply isn’t read once in the three year cycle. The last paragraph can be read on Christmas Day. But not the rest.

So, what should we do with it when it comes up in the evening lectionary that we use? Read it and roll our eyes knowingly? Read it and denounce the things it represents in sermon, deeds and action?

Or quietly cause it not to be read at all?

Over to you.


  1. Rosemary Hannah says

    Long a problem – I think, on balance, I go for reading aloud the bulk of the Bible but putting in more of the stunningly good stuff. If we do not read the whole of it, then we put deciding what IS important in the hands of other people. I am pretty sure that if we had done that in the 1950s we would have ended up with Paul’s ill-thought-through argument against same sex sex at the start of Romans in the core text, and the arguments of the Pastoral Epistles for slavery out of the text. If we read the whole of it, we can at least have a discussion about what and how we make decisions over what are and are not tenable views (and what was and was not written by Paul, come to that, because of course most scholars don’t attribute Titus to Paul).
    The problem is not the lectionary. The problem is what Christians do and do not know about the Bible and about scholarship around it. There is an unjustified fear of the latter in some circles – a fear that ‘knowing more will hurt my faith’. But scholarship can also open up dazzling and positive insights as well as shedding doubt in dark places.

    In general, as regards read-aloud-in-church I favour fewer gobbits, and more sustained narratives, and the chance to get to grips with what is and is not there.

  2. Rosemary Hannah says

    The point being that knowing there are duff bits allows us to look intelligently at why they are duff. whereas giving the impression it is all hunky-dory leads to undue weight being put on duff bits left in. But focusing unduly on duff bits leads to the impression it is all duff (which seems sometimes to happen to poor Paul).

  3. Eleanor Harris says

    The problem stems, I think, from a belief that the bible is not a historic text but an instruction manual. What this passage teaches me is that if even so enlightened a thinker as Titus can make casual comments which to me are completely offensive, what casual assumptions might I make, by not thinking radically enough out of the box of my own society’s norms, which future generations will read with horror and condemnation?

    What if you’re reading it at a service without a homily? The problem goes back to the original assumption. You treat the bible as an instruction manual. Then you begin to create a lectionary that misses out the bits that don’t fit with the instructions you want to give. Therefore, you don’t have to preach on the problematic bits. This perpetuates the problem, because you have created a scripture which does appear like an instruction manual. Then, unfortunately, at evensong, or because (heaven forfend!) the congregation read the bible for themselves, someone reads one of the many passages of the bible which don’t fit with our cultural norms. If all they have heard taught in church are the easy bits, they haven’t been taught to deal with the difficult bits.

    I would revise the lectionary to INCLUDE as much of the hard stuff in the bible as possible at the main service where the sermon is. In 1802 Bishop Sandford of Edinburgh chose the 109th psalm as the text for a sermon for his senior catechism class, precisely because it was the most problematic text he could find.

    The bible is such a rich and wonderful text: I think any attempt, fundamentalist, liberal/progressive, Roman Catholic or any other, to censor the bible and limit it into one message shuts down the possibility of God speaking to us through it. I’d certainly want to maximise the opportunities for discussing what it means to us today. But I think the consequences of missing bits out are far more dangerous than the possibility that someone might hear a bit of Titus at evensong and mistakenly think the church endorses slavery. Hey, they used to think we practised human sacrifice, but we got through that!

  4. You’ve not noticed the bits that are already left out of the Revised Common Lectionary then Eleanor. There’s lots.

    The bit that I do regret not getting more of a go is Song of Songs.

    (Which doesn’t have much to say about God, directly).

    I think that the principle of having a lectionary that leaves bits out is fairly well established in just about every Christian tradition since Jesus write the whole text out for us on parchments and gave it to his disciples to bind together into the King James Version.

    Hasn’t it?

    That’s the thing. The fundamental tradition is to leave bits out. That’s what Christians do. Its what they’ve always done. It makes them who they are.

    Question is, which bits and who chooses.

  5. I think Eleanor hits the nail on the head. Tell it like it is: the text being read might not be history (nor even any pretence of it), but all the constituent documents were formed in periods of history very different to now.

    A simple change of focus can still pull lots of use even from the quoted passage. When I analyze it, I can picture two clear columns, a set {roles}, a set {properties} and a mapping between them. Rather than asking which part of the text I would elide, consider that half the text, the left column of “roles”, is descriptive not prescriptive; the other half, the “properties”, is desirable.
    We might not have slaves and masters, nor may young blokes and older women have the same types of role in society, but that’s no reason to flush the qualities of seriousness, prudence, soundness in faith, in love and in endurance, love, chastity, faith, fidelity and self-control out with the bathwater.

    Such a message is neither the usual fundamentalist (“see, it says wives to be submissive, so wives must be submissive, end of”), nor the usual liberal (“well we don’t believe it was really Paul because it was penned late and opposes what we know Paul really said elsewhere so let’s take it all with a pinch of salt”), but falls somewhere in the middle-leaning-forwards and also passes the criterion of seeking the most compassionate reading.

    • It seems to me that all three of you (Rosemary, Eleanor and Tim) are assuming the congregation at Choral Evensong as a whole

      1 has been to church before
      2 has been taught theology (or is interested in theology)
      3 has not just walked in off Great Western Road and be composed of people who will judge all of Christianity by the words they hear in in 45 minutes starting at half past six on a Sunday.
      4 does not include sniggering members of the choir clergy

      These assumptions do not hold true.

      Frankly, they question is not what the likes of Rosemary, Tim and Eleanor think of the text but what the text is likely to do for the turner up.

      It seems to me that Choral Evensong is not the time for lectures on why the church doesn’t keep slaves, promote circumcision or make women wear or not wear hats.

      I repeat – there is no homily at Evensong.

      I repeat – all churches I can think of have always chosen not to read bits of the bible. Christianity is the faith which choses not to read all the Bible in its regular diet of worship and misses bits out that are unedifying.

      • Eleanor Harris says

        I am very aware that the common lectionary misses out large chunks of scripture: I am very sorry for it!

        I have also had the experience of having to read a passage which I felt that, to read as if I was the author addressing the congregation, would be flat lies. It was a very reassuring passage of Isaiah full of promises of prosperity and peace. I knew people would ‘like’ it, but I do not believe that prosperity and peace is to be the lot of God’s drawing room in the next fifty years: if it is, it will come at a huge price of exploitation and injustice. So I read it with huge ironic anger (and of course people said it was the best I’ve ever read – I’m not sure my point got across).

        There was also a time when Britain had just gone to war in Iraq, when we sang a particularly inappropriate warmongering psalm which made me want to hide under the choirstalls.

        As for Song of Songs not talking about God?!! It taught me that in the eyes of God, sex is fun, fantastic, creative, life-enhancing holy and spiritual experience, and Christians should enjoy it to the full!

        But I fundamentally disagree that we should edit or censor what we read, except to insofar as some passages which relate to key moments in the Christian year will be read disproportionately often while other passages, like much of the Old Testament, will only be read every few years. The church should be shocking and challenging people: if the first experience of the church is being offended by it, I would say that’s as good a beginning for Christian engagement as any, as long as there are then opportunities for further, more friendly engagement. If lots of people come to church for the first time at evensong, maybe it would be worth having a short homily, and/or having a glass of wine after the service and an opportunity to meet people and ask questions – or other things. Too many thoughtful Christians are too ignorant of the bible already: that’s why they can’t answer the fundamentalists when they say stupid things about it. The last thing we should be doing is starting to miss bits out.

      • Oh, I think it’s probably fair to attribute some sniggering to the choir, if only because they were watching to see the reactions of others 😉

  6. Andrew says

    I wonder whether more obscure or controversial readings could be preceded by a short commentary or explanation? I remember being particularly puzzled by the story of Baalim’s ass – an amusing fairy-tale, but what relevance does it have to Christian life?
    For the New Year I was given a book entitled “Read the whole bible in one year” , a thing I have never done before, although I am familiar with many parts of it. It prescribes three chapters a day, from beginning to end. Genesis and Exodus are exciting, and show us how those early peoples perceived God, but Leviticus! So far (up to Chapter 7) it seems to consist entirely of ponderous, oft-repeated instructions on how to slay various animals. You could write the whole thing very quickly with copy and paste. Why is this part of the Christian bible at all?

  7. Perhaps the solution is to have a very short homily at Evensong?

  8. Aha

    Two people wanting to avoid this situation arising by having a short homily at Evensong.

    I think that nicely proves my point that there are texts of scripture that really don’t stand alone at a meditative choral service without any explanation.

    My conclusion is that it is reasonable for such texts not to be read.

    I’m happy to talk about and address such texts but not every time and every place seems to me to be best suited to doing so.

    • I totally agree that it makes sense to simply not read certain passages in certain situations…especially when those situations don’t allow you to explain the passage at all. At times like that, it would seem best to use sections of the Bible that are clear and easily understandable, especially to those with no theological background.

  9. Rosemary Hannah says

    Yes, if you want to address these passages in another place and at another time, that is fine – I think with the proviso that it should be done consciously so we do not end up believing all of the Bible is swallowable. There is a long and honourable history in the church of addressing some things with believers and members which are not covered in public places.

    If you ask a different question: ‘What would others have done’ I can answer as to what was my usual practice when I had the care-and-control of a church congregation. On my watch, before every such difficult passage, I prefaced the reading with a short explanation. Here I would have said something along the lines of: ‘We are going to hear an extract from a letter to somebody called Titus. The writer claims to be St Paul, but many scholars nowadays think it was written by somebody else, long after Paul was dead. The writer is very worried that the ways of Christians will cause pagans to look at them and think that the women are too insubordinate, and he wants to crack down on that. I can’t say that I personally think his solution to his problems was a good one, and I am happy to talk this through after church with anybody who is interested. Now, let us hear what this man has to say.’

    I also regularly introduced passages which needed a bit of background history with a few words putting that in place (sometimes along the lines of the serial-in-an-old-fashioned-woman’s-mag style ‘Absolom has just rebelled against his father David, and he has been killed when his hair caught in a tree. Now David’s people need to break the news to the old King …’ or whatever.)

    I admit this is not superb liturgy – but it does deal with a problem which always seemed to me more pressing than that. Bear in mind that this was a tiny church where seasonal visitors could be assured of a warm and personal welcome and everybody else knew where most people’s vulnerabilities lay and were careful of them.
    Our difficulties do not end with openly ridiculous passages.

  10. I don’t think we should leave bits of the bible out of our corporate reading of it. The fact that the lectionary does so bothers me. I go down the 2 Tim. 3:16 line.

    If we are concerned, as we should be (imho) as a church about whether (and how) people engage with scripture, then it’s part of our job to address all of it, to talk about and wrestle with the hard bits as well as engaging with the easier bits. If we leave the tough stuff out then we’re encouraging people not to think well (or at all) for themselves about scripture, its context and its contemporary relevance. And that can’t be good.

    • I think that attempting to read all of the Bible at Choral Evensong is a pretty fast way of putting on services that would appear to be irrelevant and incomprehensible for most people attending.

      I don’t think it is what the church has ever tried to do and for good reason.

      The idea that 2 Timothy 3:16 justifies reading the whole Bible at Evensong (or indeed at the Eucharist) does not sound to me like one of the most sensible interpretations of that verse.
      (And I’ve heard quite a few in my time).

      It does not seem to me to treat the text with much of our God given holy common sense either.

      • Fair enough. My original comment was off-topic insofar as I wasn’t thinking about Choral Evensong per se, but rather about the presentation of the canon of scripture as a whole to congregations over the year(s). So apologies for that.

        What I take from 2 Tim 3:16 is not “thou shallt read the whole bible in the lectionary”, but then I come from a church where we don’t follow the lectionary. What I take from it is simply that all of scripture is worth our attention, and I for one would rather go to a service where tricky passages have not been quietly rustled away out of sight.

        I would much rather see them brought out, considered and talked about.

        Then again, I have to say I don’t find this bit of Titus offensive anyway. I just think it needs thoughtful handling. And that’s where having heard it in church can prompt a conversation, thought process or prayer that helps me along.

        • I don’t think it is possible that 2 Tim 3.16 refers to the Bible that we have in our hands today.

          My experience of those churches that don’t follow the lectionary is that they tend to miss out more than those who do.

    • One should not run from scripture…

      On the other hand, though, the Church is also about more than bible-study; amongst other things there’s present-tense worship to be doing as well, which is a purpose of Evensong.

      A time & a place for everything, perhaps, and the flexibility to decide when the lectionary is being problematic into the bargain.

  11. Bro David says

    I think that I’m with you Father K, there is a time and place for everything and a service where the problems of a problematic passage can’t be addressed easily is not the place to read it, lectionary be hanged.

  12. My favourite bits of the Bible are the Song of Songs (which, in the medieval period, was interpreted by both Jews and Christians as an allegory of the soul’s relationship with God); the book of Ruth; the book of Esther; the story of David and Jonathan; Amos & Micah. Most of the New Testament leaves me completely cold, and some of it is actually offensive, especially the account of the silver-smiths of Ephesus, and the way that Paul appropriates pagan poetry in the marketplace of Athens.

    I think the solution to your problem is not to read the “difficult” bits without some sort of homily about a better way to understand them, and how to read the Bible in general as a collection of texts situated in a particular historical situation.

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