How Do We Follow the Bible Without Picking and Choosing?

psalms_bibleI don’t follow everything that the Bible teaches.

Neither do you.

In fact, nobody follows everything in the Bible.

Having said that, I care deeply about letting God speak authoritatively over my life, and one of my commitments as an evangelical Christian is to study a historically accurate Bible that is relevant for today and is used by the Holy Spirit to speak into our lives.

If I’m looking to the Bible for guidance, then I don’t want to arbitrarily ignore one part while listening to another.

The problem with taking the Bible literally or constructing a “biblical” view of anything is that you inevitably end up picking and choosing certain passages over others. And even if you can find a clear teaching in the Bible, the application gets really dicey.

Paul says to honor the government in the book of Romans, but some evangelicals in America have used that as justification for cozying up with the Republican party. Meanwhile the Anabaptists are quick to point out that the Roman Empire was a corrupt, destructive force. Paul was merely telling the Church to go about their business without running afoul of this evil empire.

“Honoring your father and mother” becomes difficult when a child’s parents don’t share his faith—I’ve been there.

A “biblical” view of money has to take into account the presence of affluent Christians who owned homes like Priscilla and Aquila as well as Jesus’ exchange with the rich young ruler where he told him to sell everything and give it to the poor.

In drawing from NT Wright’s understanding of the Bible as a four act play that helps us complete the fifth act, I’d like to suggest that literally following the Bible  is impossible, and that the Bible was never intended to be a reference guide. We are left with a measure of uncertainty as we listen to the Spirit and imperfectly apply scripture to our lives without necessarily proof texting everything we do and believe. 

In fact, the writers of the New Testament took this very approach with the Old Testament.

How Peter Applied the Psalms

With Judas out of the picture, Peter rallied the 11 apostles in an attempt to restore them to a nice even number again. I like to think Peter was a little OCD. “Guys, it’s got to be 12. It just, just has to be 12!!!”

Whatever his motivations, Peter wasted no time in “bending” scripture to support his argument by citing Psalms 69:25 and 109:8. Neither are about Judas. Neither say anything about apostles or even numbers of apostles.

They’re both Psalms that contextually and poetically speak about wicked people. The first is a curse of sorts on the wicked and the other is a prayer that God will send a new leader to replace an evil one.

We can see what Peter is getting at, but his route isn’t exactly historical critical contextual exegesis. He isn’t finding a blueprint for how to structure the apostles in the Psalms. We are light years away from Peter writing up a brief handbook called Biblical Apostleship based on his studies of scripture.  He’s taking two themes from the Psalms and suggesting that they speak into the current situation.

We could argue that he does something similar in Acts 2:25-28 where he takes a Psalm that is historically about David’s Kingship and applies it to Jesus. There is a clear original context for Psalm 16:8-11, but Peter doesn’t let that stop him from using it to inspire his sermon.

Why We Can Eat Rare Steaks

As hard as it is for us to process the way the early church used the Old Testament, I find it equally hard to sort out a consistent way to apply all of the Bible to today. There are certain situations where Christians have seemingly intuitively realized that binding commands for every early Christian no longer apply to us, while other archaic commands for the early church (that make no sense in today’s context) are considered binding.

Let’s take rare steaks for instance…

The letter from James to the wider Gentile congregations explicitly forbids eating/drinking blood. We have no problem sorting out the cultural implications.

It’s simple really. There’s a subtext: They didn’t want to offend the Jewish believers. What does the Bible say? “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles.” It’s a bit of a nudge, nudge; wink, wink moment.

The Bible doesn’t spell it out for us, and we could technically suggest that a literal reading demands that we should abstain from blood—after all, this is a concession for us. James is trying to remove burdens for us non-Jews. We should be grateful, right?

For a passage like this, we have a much easier time realizing that the Bible is telling us a true story about something that happened to a specific group of people in a particular situation. We have no trouble removing ourselves from the narrative and seeing the wider lessons about removing obstacles for new believers that are non-essential elements of the message about the saving work of Christ.

The irony is that we could read this passage literally and completely undermine it by using it to create obstacles today.

We could make similar arguments about head coverings and women in ministry in 1 Corinthians, although very few Christians today worry about hair length or head coverings in contrast to the church’s deep divisions over women in ministry.

It’s plain to see that Paul was writing to people in a specific context where hair length, head coverings, and women teaching were problematic, hot button issues. He was especially emphatic about head coverings, saying that the churches of God had no other practice on this issue (1 Corinthians 11:16).

We can look back to the culture and understand that head coverings and hair length were important statements about a person’s values and practices. We can also see that few women were educated and that Greek religions distorted women into either sexual vessels for worship or noisy, ecstatic prophets.

These contextual clues make it easy for us to understand the symbols and cultural struggles Paul faced, but today we can only reach consensus on head coverings.

The Many Ways of Reading Scripture

There are times when we read the stories of scripture and intuitively realize that certain teachings or events apply directly to us. When Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” on the cross, we know something about how to apply that. The statements of Jesus about his divinity are equally clear.

However, once we get into the stories and letters of the early church, we have to figure out just how far to take these teachings.

If we’re going to take the Bible literally, then we could even go as far as affirming Paul’s letter to Titus: “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ He has surely told the truth!” (1:12-13).

We are always trying to sort out which parts of the Bible apply to us and which don’t. We would never say it quite so clearly as that. On the face of it we want to say that the Bible is authoritative and clear and true and easy to apply. I believe that the Bible is authoritative and true, but how it’s authoritative is another matter since it isn’t clear and it’s not always easy to apply.

Perhaps I’m on the wrong track by seeking after a consistent way of reading the Bible. Is this is another impossible holy grail quest for evangelicals? Will I only find a French castle that catapults the cattle of interpretive uncertainty onto me?

Even the Bible itself doesn’t present a uniform method of interpretation. Paul wasn’t above using allegory (Galatians 4:21-31), and certain stories and letters are easier to sort out than others. There were times in church history where the majority of interpreters relied heavily on allegory for Biblical interpretation.

Their sermons on the Song of Songs are on an awkwardness scale comparable to Michael Scott’s comedy routines on The Office.

A Bible with Uncertainty or Possibility?

While certain teachings in the New Testament are unmistakably clear, applying scripture has never been a precise science. We can surely all agree that the focus on the Gospels is Jesus: his incarnation, Kingdom ministry, death, Resurrection, and promise to return. We can all see that Pentecost jump-started the church and must remain central to our identity if we hope to persevere.

How we work out the details of Christian living and doctrine is another matter.

All is not lost. In fact, we could say this is a win.

Whereas I used to read the Bible to find the theological cheat sheet—a cheat sheet that came dangerously close to actually reading the Bible itself—I now face the challenge of continually reading these stories and listening to the voice of the Spirit anew. This is more work, but it fits what I see in scripture.

No one had a doctrinal cheat sheet for the church that scholars developed from orderly outlines and studies of the Old Testament. It was a Spirit-led struggle that didn’t always present tidy resolutions.

I’m tipping my Protestant hand here. I like the way Protestants are diverse and decentralized. I like local churches with a community focus. Oversight and authority will always be our challenges to work out, but I’ll always take chaos and diversity over centralized authority and rigid uniformity.

I like to think that Jesus imagined a diverse church with different kinds of leadership, different understandings of salvation, and different ways of celebrating his life, death, and resurrection.

I can’t point you to a proof text for this. It’s just a feeling I get as I read the story of Jesus and see him welcoming Roman soldiers, synagogue leaders, fishermen, tax collectors, patriots, priests, and thieves.

We’ll always face the challenge of picking and choosing from the scriptures. That’s why we need to keep reading it. We need to let these stories get under our skin and become a part of us. We’ll start immersing ourselves in the ways God lovingly interacts with people and how we can embody that love to one another.

The Spirit can whisper to us, guiding us this way and that. We may only know enough to take a single step today. Then again, Jesus told us to pray for our daily bread. I mean, that was technically about meeting our daily needs, right? But then you can see the possibilities there, at least I hope you can.

Dependence. That is the prayer. We depend on God for our food, our work, and our daily needs of shelter and safety. We also depend on his Spirit to guide us. To give us just enough light for today.

Each day has enough worries of its own after all.

You see, we can’t systematize all of this and save it for later. This is all just bread that we’re breaking and sharing with each other for today.

Tomorrow we’ll rise again and open the scriptures and ask God for another serving of his bread to meet our uncertainties, worries, and challenges. If I’ve learned anything from the scriptures, God delights in those who seek him.

5 thoughts on “How Do We Follow the Bible Without Picking and Choosing?

  1. Jennifer Clark Tinker

    “I believe that the Bible is authoritative and true, but how it’s authoritative is another matter since it isn’t clear and it’s not always easy to apply.”

    Excellent point. I also appreciate how you go on to say that the need to keep reading the Bible (as daily bread) helps us continually glean the lessons we need day by day.

  2. Violet

    Something that has helped me along this journey is to distinguish between core doctrine and application. We need to get it right when interpreting foundational truths, i.e. Christ’s divinity. When it comes to applying those truths in our lives, however, the Holy Spirit has great leeway, especially since He knows us better than we even know ourselves. Unfortunately we too often are not willing to give Him that freedom when we see different applications in others lives from our own.

  3. Alta

    Excellent, Ed! Also, I would recommend to your readers an older (1991), but very applicable book called, “The Living Sword,” by Harold Eberle. Subtitled, “Letting the Holy Spirit Interpret God’s Word.” Here’s a hint. The dedication reads:

    “To those who have endured confusion or pain as a result of the legalistic use of the Bible. May you be healed, and may you enjoy a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”

  4. Natasha

    Hi Ed,

    This is really well said. I very much agree. There will always be Christians who argue back “where do you draw the line?” but unfortunately there aren’t easy answers. If you don’t acknowledge the complexity of the Bible for the reasons you well articulated here, you’re at risk for an equally big problem of oversimplification. It’s very hard to encourage many Christians to realize this and come to terms with the fact that there really is NO clear line.

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