It goes without saying that we disagree on a lot things in the church.
If there’s something to believe in or a position to take – maybe it’s gay marriage or abortion or war or women in ministry or speaking in tongues – it’s pretty easy to find 2 people who passionately disagree.
But there is one thing that usually unites us even in our passionate disagreement.
We all think we’re biblical in the things we say and do.
That is to say, we think we’re being faithful to what the Bible clearly tells to do. But are we really? Are we really being biblical in all we do?
The not so easy answer is yes…and no.
There are two critical issues we tend to forget when we claim we’re being biblical. The first is that the Bible speaks with a multitude of voices. Yes, it is inspired by God, but it was written by people – a lot of different people.
The Bible didn’t just drop from heaven one day. It was composed over several centuries by who knows how many people with a cornucopia of ways of looking at the world and thinking about God.
That doesn’t mean there is no continuity in the Bible. There absolutely is. The call to care for the least of these, for example, is echoed from Amos to Isaiah to Jesus and beyond. But claiming the Bible speaks with one voice is dishonest and devalues the importance of diversity in the witness of God’s people.
God and our relationship with God is far too complex to be captured by one voice or one perspective. The diversity of voices in scripture not only testifies to that reality, it also prevents (or should prevent) the sort of monolithic dogmatism that is the death of beauty, humility, and grace.
And so the Bible confronts us with different ways of looking at the same thing, sometimes because it is testifying to an important balance, other times because God is doing a new thing, and still other times because the biblical writers see only in a mirror dimly.
For example, Paul talks a lot about justification by faith, but James says a person is justified by works (while Jesus seems to be somewhere in between). Even the letters of Paul don’t always speak with the same voice (probably because he didn’t write all of them). At one point Paul says women should be silent in the church, but in another passage, gender no longer matters in the Body of Christ.
Back when Paul was still Saul, Peter had a vision that told him to blatantly violate the words of the Moses. And, of course, Jesus’ ministry revolved around “you have heard it said…but I say.” (Most of what “you have heard it said” was said in the Old Testament)
Again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t important themes, ideas, and callings that weave their way throughout the entire Bible. There absolutely are, but the diversity of voices in scripture should call our attention to the most fundamental problem in claiming that we’re being biblical.
We’re not actually being faithful to the entire Bible. We’re being faithful to parts of the Bible, while ignoring or completely rejecting others.
For example, those among us who believe it is biblical for women to be silent in the church and subordinate in the home, conspicuously ignore Paul’s endorsement of slavery that follows his words about women not once, but twice – “Slaves obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”
A vast majority of us who claim to be biblical people suddenly stop being so biblical when it comes to selling all we have and giving it to the poor or turning our cheek and resisting no evil doer.
And, of course, for all the shouting we do from the mountaintops about biblical marriage, few of us keep the biblical marriage mandate not to divorce or if divorce does happen, not to remarry.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it, then why are we not gouging out our eyes and chopping off our hands when they cause us to sin or keeping our heads covered when we go to church (ladies) and making sure our hair isn’t too long (men) or letting the dead bury their own dead?
We’re not doing these things because when we say we’re being biblical, what we’re actually doing is adhering only those things we believe are important and worth following.
Sometimes that’s actually a good thing, like when we’re talking about owning slaves. Sometimes it’s not, like when we ignore Jesus’ (and the Bible’s) unequivocal call to care for the least of these.
But the real problem comes in not simply when we believe our version of being biblical is the version of being biblical, but when our version results in a way of life that is in conflict with the way of Jesus, a way of living that always always always puts people before orthodoxy and legalism.
St. Augustine was one of the most important figures in the early church and his influence continues to be felt today in fundamental ways. But there’s one thing he taught that a lot of us in the church have forgotten about. He had a way of reading and interpreting scripture that I love. It’s a principle that I think all of us should adopt, especially when we claim to be living or speaking or thinking biblically.
According to St. Augustine, no matter what interpretation of scripture you arrive at, no matter how clear you think the Bible is being or how faithful you think you are being to the words on the page, if your interpretation (and therefore way of life) doesn’t adhere to the greatest commandment – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself – then your interpretation of scripture is wrong.
St. Augustine took Jesus seriously. He understood what we seem to have forgotten, that none of our doctrines or traditions or laws or perfectly manicured theological frameworks matter if they interfere with our fundamental call to love God and love our neighbors.
(And, no, damning our neighbors to hell is not an act of love)
As the people of God we should absolutely strive to live biblical lives. After all, it is the Bible that gives us the gospels that tell us about Jesus and it’s Jesus who tells us how to live.
But we need to honest about what being biblical means and what it doesn’t.
Too often being biblical is just a cover for being Calvinist or Republican or Wesleyan or Democrat. It’s a way of sanctifying our own world view.
But if being biblical at all means being like Jesus, then more often than not being biblical should turn our world view upside down.
But even after it does and we think we’ve got our bearings again and we’re finally being biblical, we need to stop and remember the words of St. Augustine.
Because if “being biblical” gets in the way of loving God and loving our neighbors, then we need to stop “being biblical” and start being more like Jesus.
Otherwise, we should stop calling ourselves Christians and admit who we really are.