I am honored to be a part of a local group of pastors from the New Paris area that meets on a monthly basis. Though we often plan events and work on ways to strengthen ties within the community, the greatest value of these meetings is to spend time in fellowship, prayer, and mutual support with other servants of God. At our most recent meeting, we spent a lot of time talking about upcoming splits within several denominations, the largest being the United Methodist church. As you may have heard, these denominations are splitting over issues regarding homosexuality within the church, issues including acceptance by the churches of gay marriage, the ordination of LGBT pastors, and whether practicing homosexuals can be seen as members in good standing.
One of the things that we discussed is that at the heart of these church splits isn’t simply issues of human sexuality, but the role and authority of Scripture. Those who take a correct and traditional view of sexuality and gender are those who place a high value on the authority of Scripture within the life of the believers and the church. Liberals in these and other denominations do not place such a value on the words of Scripture, and the commands we are given by God for our own protection. As Brethren, we stand firmly in the camp of those who hold a high view of Scriptural authority. But it has occurred to me that we don’t always talk a lot about what Scriptural authority means. So over the next few paragraphs I’d like to talk a little about the role of Scripture in the life of a believer.
Scripture describes Jesus Christ as the Living Word of God. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus Christ is the Word of God, revealed to man, who came as man, but yet is also God. We need to establish this before we get to the Scriptures, because we need to understand that although we often refer to Scripture as the Word of God, the Written Word (Scripture) is not higher than the Living Word (Jesus). Rather the Written Word has come to us through the will and mind of our Savior and Lord, the Living Word. This is what we mean when we say that all Scripture is God-breathed. The Scriptures are not a collection of writings, songs, histories, and teachings collected by a disparate group of wise men throughout the ages. Though the 66 books of the Bible vary in their style, purpose, and form, their true author and originator is Jesus Christ. These books have come to us through His Will, to teach us about God, His character, and His plan of salvation which was accomplished through Jesus Christ. The Bible is not mere literature; it is God’s written revelation to the world.
When we say the Bible is inspired by God, we need to understand exactly what that means. It doesn’t mean necessarily that God was whispering into the ears of the various authors exactly what words to write. Though there are some passages, (especially in the Old Testament prophets), where this kind of direct revelation definitely did occur, most of the Bible’s authors were using their own writing style, subject matter, and choice of words as they crafted their writings. But by faith we believe that though the writings were unique to the authors, God was guiding their thought processes, and ensuring that the doctrines communicated through the writing was true and consistent with those written throughout the rest of the Bible. Many of the authors probably didn’t know they were writing Scripture when they wrote it. But one thing we learn from the Bible is that God uses ordinary people for His extraordinary purposes. This concept is just as true for the people who wrote the Scriptures as for those whose stories are told by them. The authors wrote the words, but did so according to God’s Word and through His inspiration.
When we describe the Bible, we often use the term “inerrant”. When we say the Bible is “inerrant”, what we mean is that the Bible, as it was written, is free from errors in regard to history, doctrine, or moral authority. This is one area where many skeptics and liberals make waves. They will claim that certain passages of Scripture are historically inaccurate, or that passages’ theology contradicts each another. Maybe I’m weird, but I think it’s kind of fun to hear skeptics make an absurd claim about a passage and then watch the claim be swatted away as new evidence is discovered. Years ago Biblical skeptics claimed that King David never existed- that he was a legendary figure invented by people in need of a national hero. It wasn’t too long afterward that a monument was discovered from David’s time period, in a neighboring country, that mentioned “King David of Israel” by name. These kinds of stories abound, and through them the accuracy of Scripture is proven again and again. To this date, no one has been able to prove any details recorded in Scripture were written in error.
I said earlier that the Bible is free from errors, “as it was written.” The rub for some people comes when they realize that there are a few passages where we don’t really know for sure how the original manuscripts read. There aren’t many of these passages, but they do exist. However, none of these questionable passages involve any significant theological doctrines or important details that change the message of our faith. The Bible, as it was written, was without flaw. Have there been mistakes made by copyists over the centuries? Sure, but God in His providence has made sure that none of these differences in the texts have damaged our ability to have faith in the Scriptures as God’s Word.
As believers, we have a helper to aid our understanding of Scripture, namely the Holy Spirit living within us. We Brethren often call the Holy Spirit “The Inner Word”, that is, the Spirit of Christ living in us. Our Living Word, (Jesus), through the action of the Inner Word, makes clear to us the Written Word. Few of us speak Greek or Hebrew, (the original languages of the Scriptures), but the Holy Spirit teaches us the meaning of the Scriptures, because the Word of God is “living and active”. When it comes to understanding Scripture, our real translator is not King James or the International Bible Society but the Holy Spirit within us.
So we’ve covered what it means to say that the Bible is “God-inspired” and “inerrant”. The final subject we need to cover is the one that is causing so much trouble in several areas of the American church. We need to cover the “authority” of Scripture. To say Scripture is “authoritative” means its commandments deserve to be followed. As Brethren, we believe that the Bible (and in particular, the New Testament) is the sole authority in determining how we practice our faith. Now, most people won’t object to most of the moral teachings of the Bible. Few people have a problem with “Don’t murder”, “Don’t steal”, or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But the test of whether you see Scripture as authoritative isn’t found in how you respond to passages you agree with. Scripture is only authoritative when we are confronted with a commandment that makes us uncomfortable, but we choose the path of obedience to God’s Word over our own desires.
As Christians, we believe God’s commandments are to be obeyed. Because Scripture is inspired by God, and is perfect in its teachings, it should have authority over how we live, because it is God’s Word, and as God He has a right to instruct us on our behavior. Ultimately, whether God’s Word is authoritative for us is not a question of revealed Truth but one of the Will. Will I choose to live my life according to the commandments of the God who loved me enough to send His Son to die for me?
The answer to that question should be rather simple- YES! However, the question can become a bit more complicated when we come across passages where it’s not clear whether a clear commandment is being given. Do Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12 mean that women shouldn’t be ordained? When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:14 that it is a disgrace for a man to have long hair, is that to be understood as an eternal commandment against it, or was he merely speaking to his time and culture? Theologians wrestle with questions like these. However, after all the arguments have been made, and after we have tried our best to discern the voice of Scripture and the Holy Spirit, if we value Biblical authority, we will obey God’s Word, and not the competing voices of the secular culture or scientific theory. And though there can be honest debate about the interpretation of certain passages, few if any of these passages deal with the issues of morality that are causing splits in the American church.
When it comes to the Bible, the fundamental question the American church needs to wrestle with is this- Does God have the right to dictate how I live my life, through the commands of His Word? Unfortunately, for an increasing number of church leaders, that answer is becoming “No”. Or it’s becoming, “Yes sometimes, but no at others.” But God’s commandments aren’t a buffet, to be picked over according to our tastes. They are given in love, to guide us into the way of holiness and fellowship with our Heavenly Father. At the end of the day, our obedience determines our love for Him. God has given us every needed evidence to accept His Word as God-breathed and inerrant, and by doing so has given us every reason to accept it as authoritative. Whether we will live under its authority is the question for our generation. My sincere hope and prayer is that we will, because of our love for God, and because of our faith that He rewards those who walk with Him in obedience.