I drove past a church whose name included the word “Bible,” a not uncommon adjective selected by congregations to identify themselves as serious believers. What does this appellation really mean, though? Isn’t every church supposed to be a Bible church?
In the same vein churchgoers describe certain pastors is those who “preach the Bible,” a high, though imprecise compliment. Shouldn’t every pastor “preach the Bible?”
What these descriptions seem to mean is that my church or pastor preaches or understands the Bible the same way as I do, thus qualifying it for “biblical,” whereas those who would preach or teach the Bible in a different way would presumably be “unbiblical.”
To be sure far too few people and churches live by and follow the words of sacred scripture. Bible study is challenging and whatever “Biblical preaching” might mean, it’s not always easy on the listener or the proclaimer. Conservatives and liberals probably agree that we could use more Bible preaching and teaching.
But here’s the rub. Most of us gravitate to certain books of the Bible or to certain passages in the Bible to buttress our viewpoint. We study a little bit of the Bible. For instance, anybody who wants to know which books in the Bible this writer most often reads can simply hold my Bible on its side and see the smudge marks on 2 sections of that book: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Psalms: 5 books out of 66…that’s hardly a ringing endorsement for reading the whole Bible. It’s not that I don’t read and study the other books of the Bible, but these five books get most of my attention.
This column is not intended to coax you to read through the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation, although that’s a good thing to do. I am simply suggesting that even the most sincere, conscientious “Bible preacher” or “community Bible church” needs to be humble about claims that they preach and/or adhere to the whole Bible, acknowledging that their particular lens is one of many.
All congregations and preachers (and individual followers of Christ) have certain parts of the Bible they warm up to and other parts they’d as soon ignore. It’s tough to balance the classic themes of love, grace, judgment, heaven and hell, the love of God, condemnation, heresy, acceptance, mercy, inclusivity, poverty and riches, and various understandings of the end of time and the second coming of Jesus.
It’s much simpler to construct an interpretive method, hew hard and fast to that interpretation and run every theme through that interpretation. And so some people come down on the themes of condemnation and punishment for sins and a God who can’t be resisted and in His righteousness lets people go straight to hell if they can’t do the right things and confess the right things while other people embrace the God who allows free choice, who understands and loves and eventually forgives and calls all people to his holy mountain so that every knee will bow and every tongue confess. I am exaggerating these two great divides, but the point is that it’s very, very difficult to subscribe to both of these themes at once, even though both of are present throughout the Bible.
We draw our own conclusions and buttress them with our favorite scriptures, and call this “biblical Christianity.” From there it is a short step to assigning those who read and interpret their Bibles differently as unbelievers, heretics, fanatics, weirdoes, conservatives, liberals, universalists, or ignoramuses.
The Rev. Creede Hinshaw of Macon is a retired Methodist minister.