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There are times when our words or actions cause problems, even when we have the best of intentions. For example, most of you know that I have a chronic cleaning problem. I am in a constant state of “tidying up” my surroundings. Unfortunately, I often “tidy” items that are still in use. I clean up dishes before somebody has finished a meal. I pick up socks, shoes, and other items before their utility has been exhausted for the day. I do not believe anybody doubts my intentions, but my actions nevertheless cause problems.
Similarly, the way we teach, explain, or illustrate a Biblical concept can sometimes cause great confusion, especially for those who are already doubting our doctrinal or theological consistency, or who are predisposed to an opposing viewpoint. How we handle the Bible is no small matter, as Paul explains, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Have there been times when you have been ashamed or embarrassed by your handling of the Bible? Have you had discussions or debates with others and gotten flustered because you backed yourself into a corner? Be careful not to assume that it is the Bible’s fault, or that the truth has somehow been maligned. It may be a matter of clarity in your speech. Consider a practical example:
“We can only do what they did in the New Testament”
Simple enough phrase, right? We say it all the time, do we not? But is it accurate or clear? Often this is the stock response when we are discussing Bible authority with others. We either justify or disclaim a practice because of New Testament authorization, but this phrase is simply not the best way to explain it. Doing what the New Testament authorizes is sometimes very different, in form, from doing what Christians did in the New Testament. Because we use an inaccurate justification for our own actions and practices, our detractors have ammo aplenty for ridiculing our position. After all, we do plenty of things they did not do in the New Testament, such as Bible classes, using song books, worshiping in a building, and speaking English. We need to be clear when we teach others, without allowing our own misinterpretations or “church jargon” to confuse truth-seekers. Rather than using the above statement to justify our practices, we should prefer to say, “We can only do what the New Testament authorizes.” This is a more accurate statement about our application of the scriptures (2 Thessalonians 2:15, 2 Timothy 1:13, 1 Timothy 3:15, 2 John 9, John 12:48).
We get upset when others point out this seeming inconsistency, without realizing that it was our own explanation that caused the confusion. Other examples would include:
- Labeling ourselves as “New Testament” or “First Century” Christians. While the sentiment might be true, the statement is widely ridiculed by others because there is no other kind of Christianity but “New Testament”, and we are supposed to be expressing our faith in the twenty-first century.
- Throwing around the terms “conservative” and “liberal” without providing context. Understand that they are relative words, since everybody is more conservative or liberal when compared to somebody else.
- Misunderstanding the abode of those who have died, stating that a deceased relative or Christian is “in heaven right now.” Remember that all the saints, alive or deceased, will be taken to glory together after the judgment day (1 Thessalonians 4:15ff, John 5:28-29). The dead are being held, in anticipation of their eternal destination (2 Peter 2:9, Luke 16:19-31).
- Describing our work as “Restoration” or tying ourselves institutionally to the Stone-Campbell Movement. While their work was useful and led to a greater awareness of genuine Christianity, it did not restore anything. One cannot restore what God promised would never go away (Matthew 16:18-19, 2 Peter 1:11, Hebrews 12:28).
- Using the term “Plan of Salvation”, which does not appear in the Bible. It is not that God has no plan for salvation – it is simply that the term is confusing for some and often ridiculed by others. We should use Bible terms for Bible concepts, so the process of salvation is more aptly described as “obeying the Gospel” (1 Peter 4:17, 2 Thessalonians 1:8), or “obeying the truth” (Galatians 5:7).
Unlawful Or Illegal?
Interestingly, Black’s Law Dictionary provides some subtle nuance when defining the words “unlawful” (“not authorized by law”) and “illegal” (“forbidden by law”). It seems that the difference is between what is not expressly forbidden and what is expressly proscribed. For example, jaywalking would be something generally considered unlawful, since traffic regulations typically only stipulate that a pedestrian may cross a street at a crosswalk, at the appropriate time. Selling cocaine, on the other hand, is illegal, since federal law specifically prohibits such an activity.
While this principle is understood in our legal system, many people look at a Christian like he or she is crazy when it is applied to the Bible. They say that this approach is a “church of Christ” thing, yet would any of us want to live in a world in which only illegal activities carry a penalty? Would you want our society’s more dangerous elements let off the hook in cases where “the law never said I couldn’t do that!” When we are applying the Bible, we should be very clear that a lack of prohibition is never an invitation from God to indulge our imaginations and impulses.
The issue of worship music is one that gets the church of Christ a great deal of notoriety and negative public image. But the logic is sound and consistent. Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 teach us to sing, utilizing both our voices and hearts as the only instruments. Nowhere does it prohibit a mechanical instrument. There is never a “thou shalt not” in the text. But I constantly keep in mind 1 Corinthians 4:6 when pondering these types of problems: “…That in us, you might learn not to exceed what is written…” If the text never authorizes a practice, it is unlawful.
“Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13). A big part of “retaining the standard” would be avoiding unauthorized practices. A restaurant, for example, will have standards for every recipe. Each plate is to be replicated in the same way as the previous one. If one does not have the authority to make alterations to the recipe, he or she must maintain the exact standards, or pattern, for each plate. Even though the employee manual never expressly forbids the addition of an extra ingredient here or there, any deviation from the pattern is unauthorized. From the time of the earliest Christians, God has expected His church to retain a pattern for how it conducts itself. Paul even notes how there was to be a consistency of doctrine and practice in every congregation of Christians, regardless of superficial differences (1 Corinthians 7:17, 4:17). The point is that we must be clear how we present the explanation for our various practices; why are we authorized or commanded to do one thing, but unauthorized or prohibited from another.
Context, Context, Context
Another way that we make our teaching seem unclear is when we fail to keep Bible passages in their proper context. We face great spiritual danger when we foist upon a text an explanation that was never intended. Some of the detractors of Jesus, for example, twisted scripture to fit their preconceived ideas in John 5:18. “For this cause the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” To them, it was plain enough. The Bible proved it: Jesus was a law-breaking blasphemer. Or was He? This passage is giving us some insight into how the Jews perceived Jesus and the scriptures. They viewed His lawful Sabbath Day healing (Matthew 12:12) as unlawful, and His honest profession of divinity as blasphemy. We must also be careful not to twist scriptures so that they say what we want, lest we make the same mistakes as many who have gone before us.
To whom was the command given? This is a good question to ask because taking a section of scripture out of its context can lead to very dangerous applications. For example, the Old Testament is filled with commands that do not apply to the Christian anymore, so great care must be taken when lifting verses out of their “covenant context” and applying them where they do not belong. According to Hebrews 8:13, the Old Covenant of the Israelites has been made obsolete by the establishment of the “better covenant” with Christ. Also Christ is the mediator of a new covenant (Hebrews 9:15), and at the time of John the Baptist, the Law and the prophets were no longer in effect (“For the Law and prophets were proclaimed until John; since then the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached” [Luke 16:16]). We need to be wary of using Old Testament verses to “bind where the Lord has not bound” anymore:
- Sabbath-keeping as a religious observance;
- Binding the apparel standards of the priest-class on people today;
- Upholding the Ten Commandments;
- Loose standards on divorce because of Deuteronomy 24.
Is it saying what you think it is? Some verses sound really good when we use them incorrectly. Be careful, especially when using an older translation like the King James Bible, because many words have changed their meanings. For example, Titus 2:14 has often been quoted as an exhortation (or as a prescription) for Christians to be “peculiar” people – strange, weird, or out-of-place. Yet the word has changed meaning since it was originally translated, and actually means “chosen” or “selected”. Also, Matthew 18:20 is often used to open a worship service, or to justify “church at the campground”, when the context never lends itself to such an application.