As I sit here in the very early hours of the morning (1am), I have a lot of thoughts going through my mind about the present state of evangelicalism. Perhaps none of those concerns is greater than how modern Christianity approaches the Bible. For the vast majority of our history, evangelicals have affirmed the Bible is inspired, authoritative and sufficient. However, the issue is many Christians think they believe in the inspiration and authority of the Bible but deny that belief through how they handle the Bible. Allow me to explain.
Joe comes to Bible study. He’s a new Christian and is ready and eager to learn, so Sam walks him through how to properly study and apply the Word to his life. Joe is thankful for Sam. Sam is a faithful Gospel preacher and teacher. Along comes Fred who comes to the same Bible study to learn. Fred is interested in only his pet doctrines. He has little time to listen to others and says the same things over and over again. Who do you think will grow the most in their faith? Over time as the Bible study goes on, Joe becomes a Bible study leader and Fred is still hammering away at his same points. What Fred fails to understand is the reason he is not growing much in his faith isn’t due to his biblical knowledge but because he doesn’t allow his positions to ever be challenged in an “iron sharpening iron” kind of way. Ultimately, this is why people have tuned him out a long time ago because he only wants to drum the same tune over and over again with no consideration for weaknesses in his position.
Recently I had an experience like the one I just described. The conversation went much different than this but essentially this person wanted to only have one portion of God’s Word authoritative for a Christian’s life. I kindly and gently pointed out that the entire Bible is for our good because it is inspired, authoritative and sufficient. The response I got to this was that I didn’t understand what I was talking about. I pointed out this to person that by focusing on only one part of the Bible they were missing out on preaching the whole counsel of God. Here’s the problem: Many Christians say they believe in an inspired and authoritative Word from God but functionally deny that belief when they teach contrary to what the Bible says about itself. I’m not sure which one is worse, the non-Christian who comes to justify their worldview or the Christian who says they believe in the Bible but deny it through how they handle it. Both approaches are egregious, and I personally lean towards the Christian being the worst of the two since they profess to be born again.
Over the past few years I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what a fully-orbed evangelicalism is. Many people in evangelicalism are just like Fred. They go to church Sunday after Sunday and they mean well. They help out and they serve but they drive many people away from them because they only want to focus on a few doctrines they enjoy. They then wonder why new Christians like Joe who remains humble and teachable gain positions of leadership and influence in the Church. The reason is simple and it is profound: humility is the basis for being a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. The goal of ministry is not to pound what we know down people’s throats in order to change them. Our job is to proclaim the gospel and trust God to do the work of conviction by His Spirit in the life of the person. Here’s the problem and I think it’s a big one: Many Christians view the process of growing in Christ in the wrong way because they treat the Bible as a book of fairytales and myths just as the non-Christian does.
I realize that may be a bold claim. While I don’t have statistics to back up what I just said, my general impression and the reason I say that is based on vast majority of reading I do online. In that environment especially, people engage very little with what the Bible says and offer thoughts based on their own opinions rather than sound biblical truth. Furthermore, there is a sense that offering personal reflections is good enough. In this post, I am offering critical engagement hopefully through a biblical-theological framework to help my readers understand the issue. Yet, even there, in the vast majority of my work I explicitly engage Scripture and seek to explain it and how to apply it. When I read online, I quickly become saddened by the many writers who seem only interested in ever writing about what they think about a topic while offering little if any biblical exegesis and application to their topic. It is one thing to write through a biblical worldview, but if you never quote the Bible at all in your work, there is a big issue. In fact, it is likely you don’t really believe in the Bible at all but rather more in your own personal opinions.
What does this have to do with a fully-orbed evangelicalism? Rather than calling for reform in the Church along the lines of humble submission to the Word of God, I think many Christians, whether consciously or unconsciously, refuse to humbly submit to the Word of God. I see this happening in blog comments on Christian blogs and in forums where Christians engage each other. Rather than dealing with what is said in the post the person responding immediately interjects what they think about the topic without even considering what the author says. I have a hard time reconciling this with the repeated teaching of the Apostles in the New Testament where we are taught to “one another” (love one another, be kind to one another, etc). Since Scripture commands Christians to “one another”, if we refuse to do so online how can we possibly do so within the context of our face-to-face interactions within the local Church?
I think what we are seeing with the rise of the internet is a new type of Christian who is more focused on what they think about topics than what the Bible teaches. I may be wrong about that, but I’ve been online now engaging people with the Bible since 1998. In that time I have seen a lot of people come and go and in turn I’ve grown a lot in my understanding of the Word and hopefully matured a lot in the grace of God. Sadly, the one constant thing I see is people wanting to focus more on an experiential or even mystical approach to God rather than what God’s Word teaches about a topic. The Christian life is not just a life of experiences. The Christian life is a journey and journeys involve experiences, however, the basis for the Christian’s experience is the need to be grounded in the Word of God. If our experience is grounded in what we feel then why do we need to come to the Bible to read it, study it and grow in the knowledge of it? If the Christian faith is just a bunch of experiences, then we have no need for an inspired, authoritative and sufficient Word. In such a case, the Fred’s of the world would be right to harp on their pet doctrines. And yet, that is not what biblical Christianity is about. Biblical Christianity is a pilgrim journey where our lives are to be grounded in the Truth of an inspired, authoritative and sufficient Word that testifies about who Jesus is and what He has done in His death, burial and resurrection. God has one program in His Word and that is a rescue mission where He seeks and saves sinners from sin by transferring them from the Kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If we ever want to see a fully-orbed evangelicalism and by that I mean a healthy robust evangelicalism ever again, it will only happen when Christians come to the Bible they say they believe and once again, not just read the Bible, but study and apply the Bible. We have many people who “know” a great deal about the Bible but are stuck in spiritual immaturity like Fred when they should be like Joe growing humbly in the Word of God by submitting to and applying what it teaches. If we ever want to see a healthy robust evangelicalism again we first need to repent of our apathy towards the Bible and our misplaced confidence in ourselves. It is only then that we will stop acting like Fred and be more like Joe, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus and shining the bright light of His saving grace to others.
There is a renewed interest in evangelicalism today towards reading and studying the Bible which is excellent and sorely needed. Yet, it will take a God-given, Gospel-fueled and Spirit-empowered courage for Christians to stand for a biblical worldview in an intolerant age. The Bible, not our personal opinions or feelings, forms the foundation for our faith and practice. The Bible testifies to a unified message about the Son who comes to seek and save the lost, and saves them by opening their eyes to the truth about who Jesus is and what He has done in His death, burial and resurrection. As He does this, He adopts, justifies, and regenerates sinners, turning them from sinners into saints and rebels into servants of His grace. All of this is good news, namely that the Bible is inspired, authoritative, and sufficient because it testifies that God never lies, He can be trusted, and since He can be trusted His powerful Gospel message can be trusted to do all it seeks to accomplish. This means Christians need to in every avenue of life stand upon the Bible not just in name only but in word and deed proclaiming the Truth of His Word. It is only as we do that we will see a fully-orbed evangelicalism where the “Freds” of our churches will become more like the “Joes” in our churches.