Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it!” On the brink of the upcoming Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, it appears that Baptists continue to wrestle with diverse perspectives on how to read, interpret and apply the biblical text as illustrated by this bumper-sticker theology.
Recent and current debates in the SBC involve issues such as the proper role of women in leadership, the appropriate response to racial inequality, the alignment and intertwining of political and religious leaders and their causes, the degree of welcoming and acceptance of the LGBTQ community, and the addressing of sexual misconduct/abuse in churches and among pastors.
Unfortunately, many turn to the pages of the Bible not just for guidance, but for ammunition to tout the superiority of their own views and to undermine their opponents. Often, their reasoning is expressed succinctly: “The Bible clearly says _________ (my view).” Therefore, anyone who holds a different view is unbiblical, immoral, inaccurate or just plain wrong.
To use the Bible in this way is an oversimplification at best and a lazy or arrogant generalization at worst. The author of Hebrews challenges us to see the word of God (logos) as a breathing life-force that is actively effective to penetrate into the depths of each of us, bringing conviction and discernment to our lives as we engage in relational interaction with the Spirt of God.
As human beings, we are dependent on the divine presence of the Lord’s Spirit to enable us to interpret and apply God’s guidance to our lives. While others serve as navigators on our Christian journey, Jesus Christ is the only adequate criterion by which all Scripture is appropriately interpreted and applied.
For many Christ-followers, the Bible is a sacred text. The Bible comes from God and therefore its inspiration comes from the sinless and holy nature of God. Yet squabbles over inerrancy lose substantive value and overlook the contamination of the Scriptures by frail and sinful humans. Humans transmitted, wrote, transcribed, translated and interpreted the Bible. To suggest that a particular translation, commentator, scholar, pastor or even one’s own personal understanding of Scripture is infallible is a prideful aberration to the humble way of Jesus.
So, in the midst of great turbulence in cultural and religious unrest, let me suggest these grounding principles:
First, celebrate God’s providence. God always has been, is, and will always be, the source of true inspiration. All of the Bible is God’s word, but God’s word is not all in the Bible. From its opening pages, we are awed by the all-powerful and life-giving word of God. When the Lord speaks, big things happen. Therefore, we are completely dependent on God to deliver guidance, understanding and application from the pages of Scripture into the attitudes and actions of our lives. The very same God who inspired the biblical text is necessary to implement its meaning properly.
“All of the Bible is God’s word, but God’s word is not all in the Bible.”
Second, leave room for human frailty. Much fruitless debate centers around the inerrancy of biblical transmission. While the transmitter of revelation is without error, the receivers of that transmission are flawed. Human authors joined with the Spirit of God to receive, write, edit, transcribe, translate and interpret the Bible. The involvement of human beings brings our inclusion and our frailty. Thus, God is infallible but my understanding of God is limited and incomplete.
Third, maintain space for diversity. As we approach the Bible, we are wise to avoid clinging too tightly to our current interpretations. The Bible is far more than an “instruction manual” that we turn to only on occasion for troubleshooting the world around us. The Bible is a metanarrative of a universal story drawing us into the ever-increasing affection of our Creator. In that relational call, we find our own uniqueness and the individuality of God’s love affair with us that is as special as our DNA knit together by divine design. We are wise to leave room for the Spirit to work in our lives and to speak to us all through the biblical text in personal and profound ways.
Fourth, seek to understand the literature. The Bible has a principal purpose, but it utilizes a wide spectrum of mechanisms to usher us into the transformational presence of the Lord. Attempting to read the biblical text through Western eyes and through a modernized culture skews our understanding of the context of the Bible and its teaching. The Bible never will mean what it never meant, and so we must do the diligent work of study, research and exploration to engage with the beautiful splendor of the Bible’s imagery, symbolism, poetry, parallelism, metaphor, simile, genre, language, style and other literary aspects that lead to greater awareness of its meaning and application.
“No one has the lock, stock and barrel on God, the Bible or Christian ethics.”
Fifth, remain humble. The Bible is much more than a one-size-fits-all document. While broad in scope, the Bible intentionally avoids providing a specific step-by-step scenario for life events. Thus, we should personally abstain and refuse to follow biblical teachers who espouse a self-righteous, egocentric arrogance in regard to biblical interpretation. No one has the lock, stock and barrel on God, the Bible or Christian ethics; the Lord is bigger and vaster than we can fully comprehend. Humility is essential to a teachable spirit and to growth in Christ.
Finally, prioritize inclusion. If we err, it always should be on the side of mercy, grace and acceptance. The fear of a slippery slope of perceived unbiblical doctrine is oftentimes a smoke screen to avoid the painful yet rewarding experience of extending God’s kingdom to all people and the fulfillment of the Great Commandment. Jesus always made space for others, sinners though they be, and if we are going to be his followers, we must prioritize being more like Jesus than the Pharisees. Hence, our first and lasting relational response to those we differ with should be “neither do I condemn you,” rather than “go and sin no more.”
Emphasizing where we stand (as individuals, churches or a convention) on our moral interpretation of Scripture only isolates others from mutually edifying conversation and collaboration in the kingdom. At the end of the day, I’d much rather treat people “right” than be right. Perhaps that is the most biblical thing that could be said.
Patrick Wilson serves as senior pastor of Salem Avenue Baptist Church in Rolla, Mo. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.
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