There is a holy grail that evangelical Christians have been seeking. It’s a quest that has consumed much time and left many battered believers by the side of the road. I’ve sacrificed my share of time to this pursuit over the years.
This is the holy and righteous pursuit of being the most “biblical.” In the evangelical world, if you aren’t “biblical,” then you are clearly influenced by your sinful desires or our evil culture.
While “biblical” could technically mean “influenced by the Bible,” it has become a code word for “possessing the one and only way to interpret the Bible on a particular issue.” In our zeal to follow the teachings of scripture, we have sought a definitive, once and for all time way to read a book that has always been a work in progress.
In one sense, we all want to be guided and informed by the Bible. However, the pursuit of being biblical more often turns into: “I know God’s definitive and authoritative perspective, you better agree with me, or you’re going to be unbiblical.”
If I don’t agree with the “biblical” perspective being presented, then I’ve rejected God’s truth. The possibility of ambiguity is lost, even if that ambiguity is all over the Bible:
Do you want a biblical approach to conflict resolution?
You could turn the other cheek.
But then, Jesus did tell his followers to buy swords.
And whether or not you’re going to offer a sword or a cheek, the Bible says you can’t let the sun go down on your anger, so if the sun is about to set, you need to make your peace immediately. If the sun is already down, you’re clearly in big trouble.
Or are you? Somehow we don’t lose sleep over those details.
Do you want a biblical marriage?
You could marry your wife’s concubine.
Don’t have a concubine? Better get cracking on that one.
Then again, men could try loving their wives as Christ loved the church. I should add that I mean each individual man should love his individual wife. We need to be specific about these things when we talk about being “biblical.”
Do you want a biblical approach to money?
Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.
Then again, you’re supposed to tithe 10%, so I’m not sure how to manage that if you’ve just sold everything you own.
Do most Christians ever try to do either of these things? For some reason we don’t. We also don’t hear too many Christians having a crisis of faith because they worry about having too much money.
Do you want to look appropriate for church?
Men better keep their hair short and women should wear head coverings. That’s CLEARLY not a culturally limited mandate since Paul cited the precedent of Adam and Eve in his statement in 1 Corinthians 11. He used the same logic when speaking of his ban against women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
Or can we just wink at Paul about the hair length/head coverings business? In fact, most of us do just that.
For some reason most Christians don’t have any problem dropping the bonnets and letting our hair down, but we’re divided over permitting women to teach. Ironically, Paul made his strongest statements in relation to head coverings:
“If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.” 1 Corinthians 11:16
There are days when I ponder starting a “Biblical Head Covering” business and marketing it to The Gospel Coalition.
You’re either biblical in all things or you hate the Bible, right?
Arriving at the definitive biblical answer for everything is not quite so easy, especially because the Bible itself was never intended to function like a reference guide.
Same God, Different Settings
If you think of the Bible as a play, the settings and many of the characters change, but the one constant is God at the center of the drama (except for the book of Esther!). As each scene shifts and new characters face challenges, God interacts with them in keeping with the values and standards of each setting.
For example, when God reveals himself to the Israelites, he allows them to marry multiple wives and he mandates sacrifices as central to his worship among many other culturally accepted norms. Back then, being “biblical” looked quite different from today.
After the ministry of Jesus, the notion of being biblical shifted to monogamy and a more spiritual approach to the worship of God.
The point has never been to find a perfect outward way of serving God. The thread woven throughout scripture has been whether God’s people are loving God and loving others.
Even under the abuses and imperfections of patriarchy, the Law contained a number of provisions to protect women. In the case of worship, the only consistent biblical law has been to love the Lord with heart, mind, soul, and strength.
The Place of a “Biblical” Holy Spirit
When you think of how many churches Paul planted, you could say that the amazing thing isn’t how much he wrote. It’s how much he didn’t write. Even if we lost of a few of his letters to the Corinthians (Is anyone else dying to know what the “Painful Letter” said?), Paul did not rely on primarily on his letters.
When Jesus left his disciples behind, he didn’t rely on written words to keep them close to him.
Isn’t that strange? Jesus just made a little old thing called Pentecost happen and left it at that.
I don’t mean to be flip about the Bible. I read it every day. The main point here is that the Bible alone is not going to get the job done apart from the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Jesus trusted the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, to keep us after he had gone. And while we should not neglect the teachings of scripture, an air tight system of theology does not replace the work of the Spirit among us.
There is no “biblical” way of doing things. There is only a biblically informed and Spirit-led way of doing things. And that information and leading may evolve and shift over time.
That doesn’t leave us with a simple phrase we can tack onto a book title or blog post. That doesn’t give us clear standards we can set up for our churches and denominations.
If I may be so bold to suggest, without such clear standards, those with power and authority will find it much harder to exercise their influence over others.
I’m all for using the words of scripture to guide and inform us, but turning the words of an ancient book into a once and for all time authoritative guide is another matter. We’ll end up frustrated and divided over our interpretations.
Even worse than that, the words of Jesus may prove hauntingly true, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” John 5:39-40
Note to Readers: Today’s post is the first of a 3-part series covering 3 things that are impossible for evangelicals.