18 min. to read.
Here’s where I’m going to tell you that you really need to read the Bible selectively.
I know. That pushes buttons and waves red flags. But stick with me for a few minutes and see what I mean.
Christians all say the Bible has authority in their lives. But what does that mean exactly? How do we let the Bible have authority? Is every sentence authoritative in exactly the same way? If not, how do we navigate this maze without falling off into the ditch of a subjective pot-luck of Bible verse preference?
This presentation takes the issue that so many people seem to use the Bible to back up so many opposing viewpoints, that it seems like the Bible can be made to say just about anything. If that’s true, then how can the Bible be an authority at all?
If you’d prefer to read this presentation, you may below.
If you read comments online, (and you shouldn’t, but if you do) you’ve undoubtedly seen this scenario:
Someone is upset about some behavior or other. They hammer out their comment declaring that such-and-such is PROHIBITED BY THE BIBLE!!! Almost immediately someone else retorts, “So is wearing a cotton-poly blend and eating shell fish.” (Both of which are Old Testament laws.)
- You’ll hear some people claim that it was Christians following the Bible who invented hospitals, championed abolition, and elevated women’s position in society.
- Others argue that it was Christians—also following the Bible—who fought to keep slavery in America, or to keep women from getting the right to vote.
- I still feel that anxious cringe whenever some crazy on TV starts quoting scripture to justify his teenage wives, or his white supremacy, or war in the middle east.
But it’s not just the crazies! People on both sides of every cultural debate in our country use the Bible to bolster their arguments. They want to draw Christians into their support.
There comes a point when a reasonable person would not be blamed for just throwing their hands up in the air and dismissing the whole thing. I mean, if anyone can make the Bible mean anything they want, then what possible good could it do as a source of guidance? That, my friends, is a fair question.
Why do we have this view?
This perception — that anyone can make the Bible say anything they want — is based in real life experiences. We’ve all heard people argue that the Bible supports their views, and then later heard someone else find Biblical support for the opposite position.
- Pacifists and people who believe in Just War both quote the Bible.
- Calvinists (who believe that God predestines everything to happen exactly as it happens) and Armenians (who believe that God gave us free will and won’t violate it) both quote the Bible.
- More recently, people who oppose same-sex marriage and people who support it both quote the Bible.
With opposing views claiming support from scripture like this, is it even possible to see the Bible as a source of guidance? Some people say no. I disagree.
Our common errors in reading
I think that this circumstance, with people trying to prove all sorts of contradictory things from the Bible, is less about the Bible, and more about the way we read the Bible. Really, it emerges from three common errors we make when we read the Bible.
1. Bumper Stickers
First, We prefer bumper-sticker quotes to careful, nuanced reading. We just hate complexity so much. We love the easy-to-quote lines that work well for mugs, Facebook posts, and arguments.
I mean, It’s far easier to quote Paul saying, “I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man,” than it is to actually study the context of that passage, as well as all the other passage talking about women, and come to see the the important and developing role of women in the early church across the New Testament. The first takes a moment. The second takes hours and careful reflective thought.
Those simple black-and-white bumper-sticker-worthy statements seem clear. They sound final and authoritative. But mostly, we want them, because we don’t want to do the hard work of living with the Bible, studying it, and letting God to shape us, through an ongoing engagement with scripture. That takes time and effort.
2. Bible Democracy
Our desire for simplicity leads to our second error. We try to read the Bible like it’s a democracy.
When we quote specific verses in isolation, we’re treat the Bible like every verse from cover to cover has exactly equal say and weight.
This is a complete misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the Bible. When we quote individual verses without any attention to the larger narrative they fall within, we run the risk of trying to prove something that the Bible isn’t ultimately saying.
It’s a little bit like assuming that because characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain use racist language, that Mark Twain was advocating for racism. Now, anyone who has read the book all the way through knows that’s clearly a flawed understanding, but people read the Bible that way all the time!
No matter how liberal or conservative you are, there’s just no getting around this: The details of real estate in ancient Israel cataloged in Deuteronomy simply do not carry the same weight and authority as the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. They just don’t.
3. We all interpret
The worst error that creates all kinds of misunderstandings is this: We’re just not honest about our interpretive lens.
We say things like: “God said it, I believe it and the settles it for me!” Or “I don’t interpret the Bible; I just obey what it says.” Well, folks. That’s just not ever true.
Everyone who reads the Bible makes priority decisions about which texts to give more weight to. Every one of us do this—conservative and liberal. We make the judgement that certain verses, or certain voices within scripture, practically speaking have higher authority than others.
For example, I grew up being told that the Ten Commandments were the highest representation of God’s character. Now, that statement isn’t Biblical. I mean, that statement isn’t in the Bible. It’s an interpretive lens. It’s making a priority statement.
This interpretive lens gives the people who hold to it a way to see scripture.This lens makes the law, the commands of God, and the consequences for breaking the law, the most important part of the Bible.
Nowadays, I disagree with what I was taught. Today, I believe that Jesus is the highest representation of God’s character. But even though I have verses of scripture that support this idea, it’s still an interpretive lens. It allows me to filter what I read in the Bible and gives me a way to understand it.
- People who read the Bible with the mindset that all the miracles didn’t really happen are reading with an interpretive lens.
- People who believe that 5-point Calvinism is the perfect explanation of the Gospel are reading with an interpretive lens.
- People who believe that the Bible reveals what’s going to happen in the future are reading with an interpretive lens.
Your interpretive lens may just be the theology you grew up with, or the viewpoint of some preacher you like a lot. Everybody who reads the Bible does this. Everybody. Most of us just aren’t honest about it.
We have to read this way!
Now, you may be expecting me to suggest that the right way to read the Bible is to not have an interpretive lens, but that’s not what I’m going to say.
Not only do we all read the Bible with an interpretive lens, it’s the only way we can read the Bible. We just need to be honest about that. I’m going to suggest to you something you’ve probably never heard a preacher say before.
The best way to read the Bible is to read it selectively.
Now, I probably just set off serious alarm bells. “Selective reading?!” Woah! That’s something we’re supposed to avoid, right? That’s what “the liberals” do, right? People pick and choose what they like and throw out the rest, right? That’s the problem with Christianity, the problem with our country, right? If we’re reading selectively, then we must not believe that the Bible is inspired, right?
Nope. That’s not what I’m saying. Stick with me to the end of today before you decide I’ve jumped off the deep end.
Not long ago I posted a comment on Facebook. It was meant to be encouraging to my Christian friends. I didn’t expect it to be controversial. I wrote:
“Christian: If your theology, doctrine or world-view is based on anything other than Jesus, it’s time to upgrade your operating system. Saying something is ‘Biblical’ is not helpful because the books in the Bible documents all kinds of beliefs, laws and stories, many of which aren’t meant to be prescriptive, or were prescriptive in a different time and culture, but are no longer.
Everything we need to know about God, we see in Jesus. Our guide for how to treat others, we see in Jesus. Our hope is in Jesus. Jesus is God’s final word.”
I felt pretty good about that. But, very shortly I received a comment that pushed back.
“Wait…” this person wrote. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting and training in righteousness.” (That’s 2nd Timothy 3:16.) The writer challenged me: “To deny the validity…of any part of scripture requires we deny the validity…of Christ’s words…I believe Jesus is pretty clear that no part of Scripture is outdated or invalid.” She ended with a powerful statement: “I think selective acceptance of the Bible is dangerous and contrary to what Jesus taught.”
Unlike some people who correct me online, this person isn’t a grumpy troll. She is a thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate young woman that I happen to know takes her faith quite seriously. Knowing something of her heart, her words felt significant to me, and worth reflection. I turned those final words over and over in my mind for some time.
Did Jesus clearly teach that no part of Scripture is outdated or invalid? Is selective acceptance of the Bible dangerous and contrary to what Jesus taught? Even asking that question felt a little heretical to me.
Something about her concern seemed exactly right—at least if I’m going to claim to be a Christian who believes the Bible is God’s word. But, something also seemed off.
If I’m the authority, the Bible isn’t. The concern behind her words was about the authority of scripture. Quite honestly, this question lies at the heart of most every church controversy for the past two thousand years. Is the Bible authoritative? And if so, in what way?
Christians all claim the Bible as the source of authority in their lives. Evangelical Christians, in particular, declare the Bible to be the never-changing, always perfect, inspired and authoritative Word of God. Yet, there’s wide disagreement about what it means to accept the Bible as an authority.
Is every word in the Bible authoritative in the same way, with the same weight? If not, how do we weigh the words? Specifically, how do we avoid ending up with a subjective pick-what-you-like-avoid-the-rest view of the Bible? I think that was worry behind the comment that was left for me. That’s the worry that some of you might have when I suggest that the best way to read the Bible is to read it selectively. Honestly, it’s the worry I have, myself.
Look, it is simply nonsense to claim that the Bible is an authority in my life, if I ALONE have the final say about what parts are authoritative. That’s no different than me searching for scriptural justifications for the positions I already find attractive. Lots of people do that; but be clear, that is NOT allowing the Bible to be an authority in your life. That left me in an interesting space.
One the one hand, I believe and teach that the Bible is God-given, inspired, useful for teaching, and meant to have authority in our lives. The Bible is a tool God uses to shape us. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the Bible is uniformly authoritative–Theologians call that a “flat text,” where every verse has exactly the same weight and authority. So, what to do?
Start with Jesus.
The starting point, at least for me, is Jesus. (See… I’m bringing out my interpretive lens here.) The person who commented on my post was, I think, correct to go to Jesus.
She wrote: “I believe Jesus is pretty clear that no part of Scripture is outdated or invalid…I think selective acceptance of the Bible is dangerous and contrary to what Jesus taught.” Well, is that accurate? Is that what Jesus taught?
Jesus quoted Old Testament scripture a lot. Something like 80 times directly, and many more time through reference and allusion. When he quoted it, he quoted the way you do if you think it’s authoritative. He quoted it to reveal and combat the lies of Satan during his temptation. He referred to scriptural passages and stories as support for his teaching. He quoted scripture to resolve theological disputes.
He said that the words of “the Law and the Prophets,” were lasting and authoritative.
Jesus said, in Matthew 5:17-18:
Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished.
While Jesus said much more about scripture, I think this is a sufficient to at least agree that Jesus saw scripture as God-given, inspired, unchanging and authoritative. But is that the end of the story?
Jesus’ relationship with Scripture
Jesus had an interesting relationship with scripture. He used it, quoted it and referred to it in the ways you would if you believed it to be authoritative. Yet upon closer examination, it seems like Jesus didn’t see all of scripture as uniformly authoritative.
Here’s a handful of examples:
Jesus seemed to see the Old Testament laws regarding cleanliness and defilement as secondary to some other higher standard. Jesus touched a leper. He repeatedly touched dead people. Both of these were declared unclean in scripture. Not only would this make Jesus unclean, it also (according to Leviticus 5:3) would make him guilty before God. Jesus, declared perfect and sinless by scripture, violated these scriptural rules personally.
Another example. The Mosaic law gave quite a list of foods that were unclean. Eating them would defile a person, but Jesus said something different. In Mark 7, Jesus taught that, it’s not what we eat that defiles us, it’s the intentions of our hearts and our actions that defile us. Jesus didn’t just clarify those rules about food. He directly contradicted them!
Another example. Jesus radically challenged the rules about the Sabbath. This was controversial territory. Sabbath-keeping was one of the most important markers for God’s people. This wasn’t a minor ceremonial rule. It was embedded right in the Ten Commandments.
Yet, Jesus supported breaking Sabbath laws on several occasions. His disciples were accused of breaking the Sabbath by picking grain to feed themselves. Jesus defended them. In another case, Jesus told a man he had healed on the Sabbath to pick up his bedroll and head home, even though this was a direct violation of Jeremiah 17:21.
How about another example. In the Sermon on the Mount, we find the most famous example of Jesus re-defining Old Testament commands. One by one, dealing with murder, adultery, divorce, serving others, and love for enemies, Jesus refers to a command from the law.
In this very authoritative way, Jesus declared, “You’ve heard it said…” citing the law, and then said, “But I say unto you…” re-defining and expanding it. The law says don’t murder, but Jesus expanded that to say, “Don’t even hate.”
We often skirt around what Jesus is doing by saying that Jesus was just correcting wrong interpretations. This may be true, but don’t ignore the reality that in at least two of these situations in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was quoting the actual words of the Old Testament, and replacing them with a much stricter and deeper command.
Jesus Had a Lens.
Am I claiming that Jesus’ undermined the authority of scripture? No. Am I claiming that Jesus didn’t believe that scripture was God’s inspired word? No. It just seems to me (from Jesus’ words and actions) that when Jesus said that God’s law was authoritative and final he meant something higher than just the words written down in scripture.
It seems that, when you study everything Jesus said and did, Jesus was constantly appealing to some higher standard. This higher standard allowed Jesus to correct false interpretations, but it also allowed Jesus to update and in some cases even change Biblical commands.
Am I claiming then that we have the right to change or update scripture? Absolutely not. I am claiming that if Jesus saw a higher standard in God’s law that served as the governing principle, then for us to accurately read scripture and obey it, we need to see the same governing principle as the high point. That governing principle would be the best interpretive lens.
So, what is this high point? We don’t need to infer. Jesus tells us.
And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test Him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” – Matthew 22:35-40
This is the interpretive lens that Jesus had. This is the filter through which Jesus saw all of God’s guidance for us. He says it himself. “All the law and the prophets.” That was a Jewish phrase that referred to all of inspired scripture.
Jesus said that all of it—all of inspired scripture—hangs, depends, is summed up by—these two thing. Love God and love your neighbor. This is the governing principle through which we must look at all scripture. This is our interpretive lens!
New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight put it plainly:
The Bible is not flat; the Bible points to Jesus so to Jesus we must go!…It was Jesus himself – a person, born, living, teaching, acting, miracles and all that, then dying and then rising and then glorified – who evoked faith and who then led to Scriptures through the Spirit and then guided the Church into those Scriptures. The first Christians didn’t believe in Jesus because they had a New Testament but they composed the New Testament because of Jesus and because they believed in him and because God’s Spirit empowered them to know the truth about Jesus.
More must be said about how we use this “Jesus Lens” to understand and apply the Bible, but for today, this is the starting point.
Jesus didn’t teach that every single verse in the Bible is never changing.
Jesus taught and showed us that what is never-changing is God’s highest and ultimate command for us. Everything else is an application to our lives in a particular time, place and circumstance.
Look, the Bible is a book for grown-ups. What I mean is that it requires our engagement and reflection. It requires thought, study and discovery. We can’t take any old verse and make it mean what we want it to mean. Anyone who says so is ignoring what the Bible says about itself.
In order to treat any verse with integrity, we have to read it inside its context. We have to know who said it, when they said it, and who they were saying it to. We have to know where it falls in the overall timeline and narrative of scripture. But most importantly, we have to apply the interpretive lens that Jesus gave us.
We need to read the Bible selectively. Select for Jesus.
When you come to two passages that seem to be in tension, choose the one that most clearly aligns with Jesus’ words. When you’re uncertain what to do, cut through the confusion by following Jesus words or example. If a scriptural concept remains unclear or confusing to you, study it, but study it in relationship to Jesus.
The book of Hebrews opens with this paradigm-exploding claim:
Long ago God spoke to our fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son.
We are Jesus’ followers. We follow Jesus. The Bible is a vital and necessary tool for knowing Jesus and being formed in His character. The Bible is a God-given means of guidance and encouragement for us. It is inspired, But Jesus is God’s final Word.
That’s my interpretive lens, and it’s the one that I think allows the whole Bible to be life-changing for us. It’s the lens that keeps us out of the ditch of trying to make the Bible say anything we want it to say.