Friday, December 13, 2013

The Bible Says It; That Settles It

I sometimes hear "What I say doesn't matter; it's what the Bible says that matters." A close cousin to that is "I didn't say that; the Bible says that," or "I didn't say that; God did." And there are other ways of expressing this sentiment. "I don't interpret the Bible; I just read it." "You're not rejecting what I say; you're rejecting what God says." And so on.

Or one of my favorites... "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." Or just "God said it. That settles it."

That's nice except when that doesn't settle it.

Sometimes the Bible says to do things that we don't do. At other times, we do things that the Bible doesn't say to do. Still at other times we do what the Bible says not to do.

So when someone says about his church, "We just do what the Bible says," what that may mean is that he believes that his church has figured out what the Bible really means and if you were humble, honest, and informed enough, you would agree with them.

The problem with claiming to do just what the Bible says, no more and no less, is that it's only a matter of time before you're forced into saying... "The Bible says... But that doesn't mean..."

Let me illustrate what I mean with some examples of things that the Bible says that directly contradict the beliefs and practices of the churches that I have been affiliated with for most of the past 20 years (the non-institutional churches of Christ). I don't think I'm pulling any tricks with these examples. They're not prophecies or figurative or obviously limited. These are passages where the context supports the obvious reading. They are texts that require substantial explanation to explain the difference between the obvious reading of the passage and what many Christians teach and practice.

  1. The Bible says that Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in John 2:7-10. But that doesn't mean they drank wine at that wedding.

Now, I know some of the explanations for this. I've read them, studied them, and even taught them. They involve a detailed description of why "wine" means "grape juice" and explaining why the best "wine" really isn't wine at all. You have to dig up Old Testament passages, lean on some atonement theology, and know something about the meaning of Greek words and the fermentation process to even make a stab at explaining why this doesn't mean they drank wine as part of this celebration. My point isn't to argue whether or not drinking wine is right or wrong. My point is "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" doesn't really work here for people who oppose drinking alcohol. The obvious reading of this story indicates that they drank alcoholic wine at that wedding with Jesus' approval. Any other reading requires quite a bit of explanation and even some extra-biblical sources. To prohibit alcohol, you have to say, "The Bible says that Jesus served wine at a wedding, but that doesn't mean that Jesus served wine at a wedding."

Hang in there with me. I can think of more than 30 more of these examples. I'll stop at five examples in this post. Again, I'm not arguing either way on any of these examples. I'm simply making the point that despite claims to the contrary, no one just "does and teaches what the Bible says." No one truly "speaks where the Bible speaks and remains silent where the Bible is silent." No one always and only follows "commands, examples, and necessary inferences" (CENI).

  1. John 13:14 says "wash one another's feet." But that doesn't mean we should "wash one another's feet". In fact if you do wash one another's feet as part of a worship service, you've added to the commandments of God because there are only five acts of worship. If you teach others to wash feet, you're a false teacher.
  2. 1 Timothy 2:8 says "men should pray with hands uplifted." But that doesn't mean to ever lift your hands when you pray. In fact, if you do lift your hands, you will likely be asked not to do that any more. So, in addition to not following this simple, clear encouragement to pray with uplifted hands, many forbid following this verse.
  3. For the fourth example, I'd like to give an example of a prohibition that many ignore. The Bible says to abstain from blood and from things strangled (Acts 15:20, 29). But that doesn't mean that medium rare steaks are prohibited or that I need to buy my meat from a Kosher butcher that ensures no strangulation. I know only a very few Christians who abstain from rare steaks for this reason. I don't know any who take any effort to ensure that their meat was slaughtered in a way that guarantees no strangulation.
  4. The final example for this post... The Bible says as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup (1 Cor. 11:26). But that doesn't mean "as often as". It means "when you do this on Sunday each and every week," because any other day or frequency is sinful. Never mind that instruction was originally given during a Passover supper (THIS bread) or that instruction was probably originally given on a Thursday (definitely NOT a Sunday). I wrote another post in June and shared my thoughts on the only every Sunday requirement.

Again, my main point is this: "God says it; that settles it" is not a workable approach to scripture. It's actually rude and disrespectful to say that. It's understood in a Bible discussion that both parties want to understand God's will. But for one to outright say "I just believe what the Bible says" is a jab at the other person. It's a way of saying, "I have figured out God's will because it's clear and obvious and I'm unbiased and those who disagree are obtuse or dishonest or ignorant." It's an attempt to gain superiority over another person, which is exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught His followers to do. Beware of entering into a Bible discussion with someone who repeatedly says things like, "My opinion doesn't matter and yours doesn't matter either. What the Bible says is the only thing that matters." The question generally isn't, "What does the Bible say?" The question under consideration generally is "What does the Bible mean and how does it apply to us?"

I don't know anyone who "just does what the Bible says." In fact, I don't know anyone who even "just does what the New Testament says." We all pick and choose. Hermeneutics is where the rubber meets the road in how we determine what to pick and choose and how what we pick and choose applies to us today. And I'm learning that hermeneutics is quite complex and ambiguous at times. Thanks to Doy Moyer, I've learned that CENI isn't a hermeneutic at all. We're not so much trying to find the commands, examples and necessary inferences. The CENI are given to us. We're really trying to figure out which of those are meant for us to follow and how do we apply them. Let's not say "we just do what the Bible says" because you don't and I don't. We all have our "but that doesn't mean" exclusions from the Bible. A better conversation to have, instead of whether we do what the Bible says or not, is why don't we do what the Bible says sometimes.

If the examples that I've shown above aren't enough to cause you to at least stop and consider that you and I don't "just do what the Bible says", stay tuned. I have several more examples. I want to share these examples because before we can have a meaningful discussion of hermeneutics, we have to remove the false moral high ground that pretends to do just what the Bible says.

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