Sunday, August 19, 2007

Wrested Scriptures (4) - "Can two walk together except they be agreed?"

For as long as I can remember I've been hearing Amos 3:3 quoted in support of the argument that there must be doctrinal uniformity on all points in order for there to be "unity" in an ecclesia, or in order for an individual or ecclesia to be accepted "in fellowship".

The King James Version translates this verse: "Can two walk together except they be agreed?"

As with the other "wrested Scriptures" I've already examined in this series, this verse is made to mean something totally different to what it was intended to mean, and this peculiar interpretation is reached only by taking the verse out of its context and then relying on a translation which is at odds with almost all other translators.

The Hebrew word translated here in the KJV as "agreed" is ya'ad. Strong's Hebrew Lexicon says this word (in the niphal tense) means:

1) to meet
2) to meet by appointment
3) to gather, assemble by appointment

Here is how some other translations render this verse:
  • "Do two walk together unless they have made an appointment?" (Revised Standard Version and New American Standard Bible)
  • "Can two people walk together without agreeing to meet?" (Contemporary English Version)
  • "Do two walk together if they have not met?" (Young's Literal Translation)
Gesenius says it means "to come together at an appointed time or place". The "agreement" here relates only to the intention to meet together at a particular time and place. There is nothing in this word, or its context, to suggest that there has to be agreement about anything else in order for the parties to "walk together" or meet together. In fact, in other contexts this root word took on the meaning of an engagement or espousal to marry. It did not refer to the marriage itself, but rather to the intention to marry. Similarly, the word could be used of a summons to a court. It did not refer to the court trial but to the summons issued to appear for trial. In this case the parties did not meet together because they "agreed" but rather that they might debate their differences.

One commentator has noted the use of the verse in the context of divisions in the church:
"It is an interesting observation that those who head for Amos 3:3 for a text of unity, actually are not trying to promote unity at all. They are searching for grounds on which to justify their separation from others." (W. Carl Ketcherside, The Twisted Scriptures, St. Louis Missouri, 1992).

The passage in Amos goes on to say that God does not pour out His judgment on a city without first revealing His intention to His prophets (verse 7). The whole passage is about God declaring His intention, and not about reaching agreement.

One of the reasons why there is so much dis-unity in the Christadelphian community is that too many people have tried to create unity on their own terms by demanding that everyone else has to agree with them. Amos 3:3 is often quoted as "proof" that unity can only be achieved through doctrinal conformity. As long ago as December 1993 I wrote an article in the Christadelphian Forum magazine about the failure of the Australian Unity Agreement to achieve any kind of meaningful unity (and at the time "block disfellowship" was being practiced by several ecclesias which adopted the Agreement against other ecclesias which were parties to the same Agreement). In that article I wrote the following:
I would suggest that the Australian Unity Agreement has failed chiefly because of a lack of commitment to the idea of Unity. In fact, our history as a community has shown that we have never been terribly committed to the idea ...

Before we could ever be committed to unity we would have to decide that we wanted it ...

This is why the Unity Agreement didn’t work. It was a formality, a technicality, a legal document encompassing a credal formula which was open to interpretation. It could not, however, compel the parties to it to love each other. For a while the threat of exclusion from the ‘fellowship’ of the wider community was sufficient to encourage ecclesias to support the concept of ‘Unity’, but it didn’t take long for some brethren and ecclesias to realise that nothing needed to change. They could still insist that their interpretation of Scripture was the only valid one; if they didn’t like the way other brethren said or did things they could try to isolate them in various ways; they could criticise, condemn or denigrate their brethren; and they didn’t have to do anything at all to help their brethren in any way! And everything was fine because we had ‘Unity’ ...

We must want Unity. We must do more than think Unity would be a nice ideal. There must be a genuine yearning for it.
Perhaps I'll post the entire article on this blog later because it's still relevant, not only in Australia where the 'celebrations' for the fiftieth anniversary of the Unity Agreement have been marred by still more fellowship controversies, but also in North America where the unity discussions broke down (as I publicly predicted as soon as I knew of the involvement of certain brethren who were renowned for their refusal to compromise or negotiate).

I hear that the Australian celebrations have included references to Amos 3:3 and that, regrettably, the mistranslation of the KJV is being pushed in an effort to bully ecclesias who aren't conforming into accepting the exclusivist approach to fellowship. Hopefully common sense will soon prevail and there will be something to celebrate.