One of the benefits of Christian ministry is the opportunity to discuss and debate with fellow believers holding an assortment of views. It is amazing to me how often in these discussions people who defend the Bible as the Word of God—who would defend verbal, plenary inspiration—actually make statements that at best twist and at worst undermine that very Word. Of course, among believers this never seems to happen for nefarious reasons. This is always done because the person sees some good need for it.
The way we handle the Word says far more about our view of scripture than does our spoken claims. Do you believe the Bible to be the Word of God? Do you believe it is the full revelation of God to mankind? Do you believe those who wrote it were inspired by God? Now, does the way you handle the Word line up with your answers?
There are three ways “Bible-believers” commonly mishandle the Word:
1) Adding to the Word of God
2) Claiming greater knowledge about the Word than is possible
3) Using scripture to address subjects it was never meant to address
These could be condensed into a single heading of “Speaking when the Word is silent.” Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthains 4:6 (NIV), “…that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written’.”
Adding to the Word
Recently in a conversation with another pastor we were discussing legalism in the church and its practice of declaring things sin that scripture does not declare sin—issues like drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. I brought up my own association’s stupid history with prohibition and the biblical contortions people resorted to in defense of it. I remember in one church watching a pastor friend of mine tell a well-respected member of the church that he was being asked to consider serving as a deacon. He responded, “I can’t be a deacon; I smoke.” The pastor, sitting across the desk from him, threw a Bible to him and said, “Show me that verse.” Many would have gotten offended that he threw the Bible, but he was showing far more respect for scripture than those who would have wrongly denied a leadership role over something about which the Bible is silent.
If the Bible is the Word of God, and the full revelation of God to mankind, then areas upon which it is silent are areas upon which we can make no biblical pronouncements. If the Bible does not call it sin, then neither should we. If the Bible calls it good, it is good. If the Bible calls it sin, it is sin. If the Bible is silent, we should be silent. This does not mean we can’t speak to people about unwise or foolish things that the Bible does not address. However, it means that we must use reason and evidence to discourage these instead of distorting the Bible for our purpose. Many treat the Bible as a rubber patch that can be stretched to fit any hole. This is not the purpose for which it was given.
Claiming Greater Knowledge about the Word than is Possible
This abuse of the Word comes in two forms. The first form of this comes from those claiming the Lord has told them something that does not agree with scripture. One person I was discussing with spoke of such an event in their church. A person in that church, who claimed to prophecy, said something the church took as a direct word from God. The statement was blatantly in opposition to the plain teaching of scripture and I pointed this out to my friend. He admitted that it disagreed with scripture and that the disagreement was obvious, but went on to claim this was acceptable because it was God speaking. A person is free to say this and to believe it, if they choose. However, don’t continue to claim scripture as the full revelation of God. Doing this undermines the claim that scripture is truth because it is the same as claiming both “A” and “not-A” at the same time. Such claims are irrational and unworthy of consideration. If your prophecy, or “divine” utterance, disagrees with scripture then either your prophecy is wrong or scripture is wrong—pick one.
The second form of claiming greater knowledge of the word than is possible comes from those who claim to know better than the writers of Scripture in the areas they addressed. I am not speaking about those who claim greater scientific knowledge-this will be later. I am speaking of those who make ethical claims and then, when shown that they do not line up with the ethical claims of the biblical writers, try to undermine the scriptures to uphold their own claim. I’ve recently seen this in a couple conversations with fellow believers who are wonderful, loving people, but who seem to have fallen into the mistaken notion that Jesus was always sweet and loveable, and that we Christians should also always be sweet and loveable. Of course, this comes out a lot around me because most would agree that “sweet and loveable” is not a good description of me. This claim about Jesus grows from a fairly old root. For a long time, to emphasize the loving Jesus and in a response to the angry King Jesus of the pre-reformation Church, many have rebranded him as a Palestinian Mister Rogers character; smiling and offering a big hug to everyone he met. They easily overlook the times when Jesus was angry, even violently so (I’m sorry, but using a whip to drive money changers from the temple can be called nothing if not a violent act. Claiming, without scriptural precedence, the whip was only used on the animals makes it no less violent and the claim actually supports my contention). Does this mean that we should resort to violence? No, it does not. However, it does give the lie to those who claim that anger is never appropriate and that we Christians should always be smiling and nice, no matter what the world is doing around us. Sometimes the response, especially towards hypocrisy in our own midst, should include anger. There is nothing wrong with getting angry so long as the cause and goal is righteous. Call it righteous indignation if it makes you feel better, but it is still anger. There is nothing wrong with having enemies, so long as you love those enemies and reach out to them in love.
So how does reaching out in love balance with being angry. Being angry is an emotional response to stimuli—perceived or real. There are things that should make us angry—in other words there are things that rightly inspire feelings of anger. If we did not feel anger about them then something would be wrong with us. Anger is not sin and neither is it a cause of sin. Sometimes we sin in anger but this is because in our anger we chose to act in sin. Love is a choice, not a feeling or emotional reaction. I can be angry with someone and choose to respond to them in love rather than in sin or from hate. This loving response to being made angry does not mean always hugging the person who makes me angry. Sometimes we must act to teach the person a lesson or to punish the one who needs it—especially, if such teaching or punishing is our God-given responsibility, like with our children. Of course, since we are doing this in love we always do it with a view to improve the other person—to make them or their situation better.
Using Scripture to Address Subjects it was never meant to Address
This one is quite prevalent in certain Christian circles. It really comes out following new scientific discoveries. Just because God chose to reveal his Word to us about himself and about spiritual, and even historical matters does not mean that this same Word has to address all truth claims ever made in every quarter of the universe. The Word was given for a purpose, and there is no need to expect answers from it outside of that purpose. It was not meant to be a scientific text; it was not meant to be a political treatise; it was not meant to be a modern history. It was meant to be God’s revelation of himself to his creatures and to teach us how to behave toward God and toward those made in his image. It speaks of salvation and righteousness.
Trying to make the Word say what it does not say is no less an affront than silencing it when it speaks. At one point in the life of Jesus, there was a divine discussion going on that did not include Peter. Of course, he had to show that he had something good to add so he spoke out. God interrupted him by saying (Matt 17:5 NIV), “This is my beloved son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” We will not improve the Word. If the Bible is truly the Word of God, stop adding to it. Be quite and “listen to Him!”