Category Archives: theology

My Least Favorite Gospel Stories: The Unappealing Bread of Life

Gospel-stories-JesusDuring Lent we’re often disciplining ourselves to undertake challenges, to give up things we like, and to dig deeper into spirituality. I have some plans to cut back on my screen time, but I also wanted to give up something else: my comfort—particularly my comfortable theology.

As I worked on my book Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from the Doubters of Jesus, I had to confront one difficult gospel story after another. At one point I quipped that I was basically writing about all of my least favorite gospel stories. Then I thought: Why not spend some time working through a few of them during Lent?

This week I want to open the series with the story of Jesus and his statement in John 6 that he is the bread of life in Capernaum’s synagogue:

“Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.’” John 6:53-58, NIV

Am I the only person who has a hard time “swallowing” this teaching?

* * *

Jesus had a lot on the line when he advocated something that sounds a lot like cannibalism. He’d just multiplied bread in the wilderness for the 5,000 and then he followed that up by calming a storm in front of his followers. The people were practically ready to crown him king. His disciples were finally starting to catch on that that Jesus had something of the divine about him.

Things were starting to line up. Jesus’ popularity was starting to peak. The only thing that could ruin it now would be alienating the people.

That’s exactly what Jesus did. He shared a teaching that was so confusing, confounding, and flat out offensive that the crowds fled from him and even his disciples considered bailing on him.

As hard as Jesus is to understand in this passage, it’s equally confusing why he would alienate such a large number of people.

Christians today measure the success of pastors by how many people they attract, not how many they drive away.

As I’ve wrestled with this story, I’ve found that perhaps the place to start is with preceding stories. The people were prepared to make him king after witnessing his miracle. It’s possible that Jesus tried to make his popularity take a nose dive. At the very least, he knew that they were operating under assumptions that didn’t have the whole truth in mind.

Nevertheless, I wonder if Jesus could have gone a little easier on them.

* * *

Every time the disciples caught a glimpse of the true identity of Jesus, he ratcheted things up a notch. When Peter declared Jesus the Messiah, Jesus told him about his coming death and resurrection. When the disciples saw Jesus calm a storm, he dropped the bomb about eating the bread of life.

To a certain degree, Jesus was drawing a line in the sand. Who or what would they rely on and trust in?

It’s tough for us to capture the implications of bread for his audience. Bread made up a significant portion of many diets, especially among the poor. Grain was easily transported and stored. The Romans shipped in grain in order to keep the common people of their capital city fed. They even gave grain away sometimes because it was better to keep people satisfied with the status quo than for them to starve and rebel.

Bread was an essential part of daily life for many in Jesus’ audience. Without bread, many of them would starve.

Mixed with his contemporary situation, Jesus also called on the Exodus story where the Lord fed the people. In a very real sense, the people were depending on God alone for their daily bread.

At the center of this story is a message of dependence—who will we look to for our daily provisions and for life?

Much like the water of life that Jesus spoke of to the woman by the well in John 4, Jesus spoke in terms of consuming something in order to experience life. We don’t mind a metaphor about drinking living water, but once we start speaking of eating his body and blood, we’re entering into imagery that is hard to digest.

The people in Jesus’ audience relied on a variety of things to sustain themselves. They relied on hard work, political parties, and religious practices. They had fears and anxieties about the future. They wanted a Messiah to take care of their needs, but they were hardly in tune with what the Messiah wanted. If anything, they were ready to sprinkle a little bit of Messiah into their daily struggles, making life more peaceful, certain, and meaningful. They weren’t ready to completely rely on Jesus.

While we could say a lot about the images Jesus used in this story, especially how they relate to communion, I find it most helpful to look at this story with a big picture view. Jesus wanted them to “feed” on him—depending on him alone. He was, at the very least, giving his listeners clues about spiritual life, even if there are other implications we could discuss elsewhere.

They could not find life by observing the law, following a religious leader, or pursuing a political party. They could only find life by getting Jesus into their lives. This is a story about the life of Christ dwelling within us, seeking first the Kingdom of God.

Each day I have a list of things I need. I need to make money. I need to be praised. I need to be noticed. I need people to help me. As my list of needs grows, it’s clear that I’m missing out on the “bread of life.” And I can only find the sustaining life of Christ by welcoming Jesus into my life.

As much as people used to depend on bread for life, so too must we depend on Jesus.

After receiving mountains of bread, they thought they had everything they needed. However, Jesus intended his statement about “eating his flesh and drinking his blood,” he was pointing them away from such a short-sited perspective.

They needed to find the life of God, and that life wasn’t imparted through bread in the wilderness. The life of God comes only to those who have Jesus living within them.

Do you have a least favorite Gospel story?

Share your story in the comments or write a post and share the link below.

Learn more about the Unfollowers in this story.

How Has the Holy Spirit Helped or Confused You?

doveThe deeper I go into Christianity, the more I feel compelled to write about the Holy Spirit and to root more of my belief and practice in the presence of the Spirit.

On the one hand, I think this is the absolutely correct way to move with Christianity, but on the other I wonder if Christians today are so diverse in our experiences and knowledge of the Holy Spirit that writing anything with a focus on the Holy Spirit could cause a lot of trouble without making sure we’re all on the same page first.

Here’s my question for you: Has the Holy Spirit helped or confused you as a Christian?

I’ve had a little of both. For a while I really struggled to understand the Holy Spirit and even feared that I wasn’t a real Christian because I didn’t experience the Holy Spirit like my charismatic friends and family.

Today I’m far more comfortable with the place of the Holy Spirit in my walk as a Christian, but that has been some hard-won comfort.

I hope to write some more about the place of the Holy Spirit in a week or two, but for now, I’m curious where you’re at.

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.

What If the Bible Only Gives Us Stories

notepadI’m playing with an idea that has been haunting me lately. It’s still half baked at this point. I haven’t lived with it very long. That gives me pause with how I present it here.

Still, I think there’s something to it. I’ll pose it as a question:

What if the Bible only exists to give us stories?

Here are the caveats:

  • The stories are true and historical unless specified otherwise.
  • There is a wrong way to read these true stories.
  • These stories have profound implications for how we live.
  • The Bible is authoritative, but not as a rule guide that we can easily plop into our lives.

My sense over the past few years has been that no one actually reads the Bible literally. And the more we insist on it, the sillier we look when we create all kinds of rules and caveats about New Testament passages that we don’t take literally, while we take others at plain face value.

My thesis is that the Bible exists to give us patterns and methods.

We use these patterns and methods in order to find God today and the stories provide us with a kind of baseline that helps us discern whether we’re far from or near the truth.

So we don’t necessarily read Paul to find Paul’s rules for living. We read Paul to learn how he sought out God, we seek God for ourselves, and then we evaluate our direction based on the authority of scripture without necessarily binding ourselves to Paul’s conclusions.

I’m not quite sure how doctrine fits into all of this, but for applying scripture to our lives, I find this intriguing though not quite convincing quite yet.

My dislike of systematic theology is nothing new here. So perhaps this is a logical step for me.

I’m not ready to dig into all of the details yet. I’m planning to work on a longer post for next Monday.

So this is just the teaser really. And also, I want to ask what you think.

How does my question strike you?

Can you relate with my struggles to apply the Bible literally?

Unity As Intellectual Uniformity Is Impossible

evangelicals-impossibleI’ve already mentioned this week that it’s biblically impossible to be “biblical,” but there’s something else that’s impossible for evangelical Christians: unity as intellectual uniformity. Authors/speakers/bloggers often lament that the church could truly be unified if only we could all agree on “X.”

The measure for unity has been anything from adopting specific doctrines or creeds to a particular approach to social issues.

If I’ve made one huge, colossal mistake over the years, it’s the expectation that the right theology can fix everything. That’s where so many evangelical and progressive reform movements fall off the tracks.

It usually goes something like this:

There’s a particular theology at the heart of one group, and once some of us find issues with it, we break off to form a new group that coalesces around a “superior” form of theology. The only problem is a new reform group will emerge with its own critique and suggested changes that will lead to yet another split.

This is the future of evangelicalism.

We’re always tweaking theology with different philosophical concoctions, suggesting that if we could just think about things a little differently or if we staged a radical enough theological revolution, we’ll find true Christianity. Such captivity to “thinking as the answer” has been my own undoing.

We’ll never think the same thing as Christians.

We’ll never get our theology just right.

Most of us know this in theory, but it’s hard to give up that constant tweaking and shifting of theology. It’s hard for me to stop believing that the most important part of my Christian life is perfecting my theology.

I have lived as if perfecting my theology is all that Jesus required of me.

Since evangelicalism took shape largely around a common vision of sharing the Gospel, there’s a glimmer of hope that perhaps we can find unity again. However, it will never come about by signing a piece of paper or all subscribing to the same blog.

There will be evangelicals who disagree on the existence of hell.

There will be evangelicals with vastly different views of God’s power and sovereignty.

There will be evangelicals with dramatically different views of the atonement.

There will be Democratic, anarchist, apolitical, and Republican evangelicals.

There will be evangelicals with very different views on homosexuality.

There will be evangelicals who permit women to teach and those who don’t.

There will be vastly different evangelical approaches to church leadership.

It’s all a mess, and we’ll never line up every doctrine just right. If we’re waiting for someone to “come around” to our perspective, we may be doomed to frustration and disappointment.

Frustrated though we may be, I’m hopeful.

A few months ago my pastor drew a 2-mile circle around our church’s neighborhood. Within that circle we found hundreds of thousands of people—far more than you could squeeze in all of the existing churches in our area.

If our neighborhood needs anything, it needs more churches and more diverse groups of Christians who can serve the poor, the lonely, the worried, and the aimless. There are thousands of people all around us who don’t know about the freedom of God’s Kingdom, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to spend our time beating up on each other, trying to line everyone up with the same exact doctrines.

In fact, after our church moved to a new location that is two blocks away from our previous location, our pastor encouraged a new neighborhood church to plant their church in the old location. In fact, there’s an Episcopal church in between our church’s meeting spot and the new church in our old spot.

We still need more churches.

I have needed this shift in mindset. Instead of always looking for the perfect way to think about my faith, I’ve been challenged to think of ways to live my faith in community. When I’m focused on serving specific people in my community, I’m rescued from myself and my obsession with getting my beliefs just right.

I’ll never sign the right creedal statement or stage the right revolution. I have only found hope in the imperfect act of serving another person and passing along the mercy and love that God has given to me.

It’s Impossible to Speak of the Gospel Apart from Power

Some Christians speak and write of the Gospel as a purely private matter of deliverance from personal sins and an empowerment to live in holiness. Heck, some just focus on the deliverance from sin and leave things there.

I hear over and over again that we need to be “Gospel-focused” or “Gospel-centered.” It’s often stated as a kind of critique of those dedicated to addressing the seemingly peripheral issues of Christianity.

  • Don’t address the problems with patriarchy… just focus on the Gospel.
  • Don’t talk about political corruption… just focus on the Gospel.
  • Don’t speak of economic inequity… just focus on the Gospel.
  • Don’t call out abuses of power in the church… just focus on the Gospel.

Defining the Gospel has been a sort of ongoing street fight among evangelicals of late. I don’t expect that I can resolve all that much with this blog post, but I want to explore one aspect of the life of Jesus as it relates to defining the Gospel and at least leave everyone with something to chew on.

How Jesus Announced the Arrival of God’s Kingdom

The politically charged message “Jesus is Lord” and even the phrase “Gospel” were appropriated from the Roman Empire. The “gospel” was an announcement from the Roman Emperor, who was known as “the lord.” Jesus took hold of these common phrases used by the powerful and offered a remixing of that word according to his own message.

While Jesus certainly depoliticized these words from their Roman usage, he didn’t necessarily move completely away from the public and political realm. Jesus didn’t launch a political party, but he also wasn’t unconcerned with the issues of his day. He just addressed them through the message of God’s Kingdom coming.

When we speak of God’s Kingdom coming, we’re not just talking about the cross, although it was an essential part of it. The message throughout the New Testament of God’s Kingdom and Jesus as Lord was spoken directly counter to that of the Romans even though the Kingdom of Jesus was different from Rome in just about every way.

The Gospel addressed the powers of our world, but it didn’t address these powers on their own terms.

What This Means for the Gospel

To say that we want to “only” focus on the Gospel and then speak of personal salvation and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ only captures part of the picture. The Gospel literally proclaims freedom to captives, but it’s not a politically organized freedom. There is both a spiritual element to this and a physical reality of freedom.

We can both pass along spiritual and physical freedom to each other, living as if the Kingdom of God is truly present and among us—because it is. We can give generously to one another because God’s Kingdom has come. We can pray for emotional or physical healing because God’s Kingdom has come. We can treat the least as the first because God’s Kingdom has come.

Our opportunities for living in the Kingdom of God and embodying the Gospel’s message, Jesus is Lord, are all around us:

When a single mother encourages an overwhelmed new mother, the Kingdom comes.

When a family delivers a meal to those who can’t provide for themselves, the Kingdom comes.

When a child offers a pile of her clothes to those in need, the Kingdom comes.

When the most fearful and insecure Christian prays with confidence for a friend in a dark place, the Kingdom comes.

The Gospel isn’t about standing around the cross for the rest of our lives.

The Gospel sends us running down a dirt road in the early morning hours to find an empty tomb.

The Gospel fills our rooms with fire and wind, giving us words we would never find on our own.

The Gospel gives us confidence to lay hands on a friend and to pray as if God can actually do something.

The Gospel steadies our minds in a chaotic world because Christ has overcome the world.

The Gospel breaks our hearts for those suffering from the consequences of their pasts.

The Gospel is incarnation, God among us, God broken for us, God risen for us, and God forever in us.

The Gospel is too big to keep it inside of ourselves or to be confined to a dark Friday morning outside of Jerusalem. The Gospel of our Lord started with the arrival of God among us, and it continues every time we live in the freedom and peace that our Lord’s presence brings.

The Gospel is freedom, hope, peace, healing, and salvation. It has everything to do with confronting the powers of our world, whether that’s an abusive church, an abusive government, or an abusive relationship.

Every time we live as if the power of evil has been defeated, every time we mend the broken, every time we tell the powerful they can’t bully the weak, and every time we tell the fearful and lost about our wounded healer, we proclaim the Gospel of Christ’s Lordship over every power in this world.

Note to Readers: Today’s post is the second of a 3-part series covering 3 things that are impossible for evangelicals.

It’s Biblically Impossible to Be Biblical


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.