The following is the second post in a series looking at the ways the Bible functions for believers as they read, meditate on and live by the word of God and the ways God intends His word to function for us in those ways. Read the first post here.
Part 2 of this series continues the survey of ten ways that Christians use the Bible. We continue with #4-7. (Part 1 is available with uses #1-3.)
4. Ethical guidance
One aspect of the valuable information in the Bible is the revelation of God’s goodness to love people—even his enemies—and to draw people into living in God’s love for others. The natural self-interest of all people suffers God’s attack by the radical requirement that we are to serve others, forgive people, and value all human beings as the special representatives of God in creation (imago dei). Unfortunately, people can misuse the ethical instruction of the Bible to construct religion. The term legalism is a human scheme to perform obedience for God and strive to score points of right behavior as if our good deeds are the main thing that he wants (and not simply the effect of God’s presence in a person). We must be careful to see the requirements of God as a perfection to be accomplished by the Spirit of God filling and moving our little lives, not as an exalted standard we strive to meet.
5. Theological guidance
One aspect of information given in the Bible (alongside history, anthropology, law, ethics, and warcraft) is Christian theology: the topics of God and his works. We are right to use the Bible as a primary voice informing our knowledge of these topics. The scattered and buried distribution of God’s revelation among the many cultural documents of the biblical canon makes theology hard work. Some topics are clearer than others. All the content comes through cultural packaging of ancient peoples and individual authors. We may feel assurance to cite biblical statements as God’s word, as if these were all dictated by Yahweh to human secretaries. Many biblical statements can be misused for theological guidance, such as descriptions of ancient practices or accounts of God’s works and requirements that were specific to an individual or group. A transcultural application is often possible to discern from these occasions and cases, such as showing a pattern of God’s goodness or his attack on evil. Not all biblical statements are statements of God’s will or approval, such as the regulations and descriptions of divorce, slavery, homosexuality, polygamy, deception, incest, rape, murder, and drunkenness. Most readers of the Bible recognize that we must take care in how we use the Bible to warrant our theological claims. The Bible’s theological guidance is not so clear as we would like, resulting in the continuing disagreements among Christians on many theological topics. A theology can be biblical—in the sense that it follows biblical statements—and wrong, such as Arianism. Biblical warrants can be misused to promote wrong theology. Without the Bible, we have only logic and our intuitions and experience. We need guidance from God, and the Bible is the major voice helping us to approach the truth in our theology.
6. Political guidance
Since the Bible is God’s word, Christians seem to delight in drawing support for our political agendas by pointing to biblical statements and patterns. I do not think the Bible was given to show us how to organize large groups of people, the separation of governmental powers, the relation of religious groups to the state, or particular forms of modern government (democracy, socialism, communism, monarchy). The Bible speaks to many things and the problems of evil in society because of rulers who fail to serve the people. Integration of the Bible with other areas of knowledge is hard work because usually biblical statements are not aimed at the aspects of human culture in a clear way. One important biblical item for integration of Christianity with culture is the revelation that all people are created the special representatives of God (imago dei) that counts in creation for individual worth and dignity. This revelation is the basis for human rights and the warrant for the intuition of universal human equality including every gender (sex), age, abilities, and religion. Additionally, the Bible is clear that God rules all human rulers, which should give us hope and assurance in all political circumstances and crises.
7. Ecclesiological guidance
The church is a special topic of the Bible and theology, so we are right to use biblical statements for what we think about ecclesiology. Theologians have observed the inverse relation between the high diversity of opinions about church and the low clarity about church in the Bible. Were the Bible clearer, then we would have less disagreement. Most church traditions warrant their practices in biblical statements that other traditions do not acknowledge as authoritative. For example, descriptions of groups of Christians reported in Acts and the Epistles may or may not be counted as biblical warrants for ecclesiology. Some examples are obvious as unique events not to be repeated:
- The flames at Pentecost
- The lethal judgment on Ananias and Sapphira
- The famine relief for Judea, and instructions to individuals about personal matters (such as Timothy’s stomach troubles)
Other examples are taken by some (and doubted by others) as having universal repetition for churches everywhere:
- The number of deacons as seven men
- Head coverings for women but not for men
- Speaking in tongues as the sign of Spirit baptism
- Baptism of young children of Christian parents
- Apostles and prophets
- Baptism in Jesus’ name
- Churches governed by a plurality of male-only elders
- Use of wine for the Lord’s supper
- Baptism by immersion
- A tenth of one’s wages given in the church offering.
I list these examples to show that people typically use the Bible for ecclesiology in many ways that others disagree about. Weightier matters about ecclesiology actually taught in the bible are not counted with the same importance, such as the mutual belonging and support for each other’s well-being—church sisters and brothers are to care for each other above all else, and in this way manifest their belonging to Jesus.
Still to come is Part 3 in this series.
Read the first post in the series: “Ten Uses of the Bible: Part 1.”