Saturday, March 30, 2019

Biblical, but not Christian

This article is somewhat related to the one I posted on 9/20/17, which has garnered more than 1,050 pageviews, and to the fifth chapter of my Fed Up with Fundamentalism, about which I plan to post an article on 6/25/19. But because of the importance of the subject, please think with me about this matter now.
“The Bible says . . . “
As a young pastor, every sermon I preached was based on a Bible passage, and most sermons cited several other verses from various parts of the Bible. After all, back then Billy Graham, the most famous preacher in the world, repeatedly proclaimed, “the Bible says . . .“ in all of his powerful sermons.
Later, perhaps much too much later, I realized that the Bible says a lot of things—and that everything the Bible says is not Christian.
The word “Christian” as I am using it here means that which is in harmony with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. The word “Christian” can, of course, refer to that—or those—associated with the religion known as Christianity. The better use, though, is with direct reference to the Christ from whom the religion sprang.
What Verses are Normative?
Many years ago, Kaneko Keiichi-sensei was a younger colleague of mine at Seinan Gakuin University in Japan. More than once I remember him asserting that it is not how many Bible verses one cites but which verses one cites that is of crucial importance.
At first, I didn’t grasp the import of Kaneko-sensei’s words, but I later came to appreciate the significance of his assertion. It is possible to quote a lot of Bible verses that are contrary to how Jesus lived and what he taught.
So, again, things can be biblical but not Christian.
As is often noted in this connection, “biblical” support for slavery in the 19th century and the “biblical” support for rejecting women in ministry in the 20th century are good examples for how the Bible has been (mis)used to maintain cultural norms.
Currently, the “hottest” issue is about acceptance/affirmation of LGBTQ people as equals within the church. The United Methodist Church last month approved the “biblical” position on that matter.
Unquestionably, Bible verses can be marshaled in support of slavery, against women in ministry as well as against acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transsexual persons. Those arguments can be touted as biblical. But are they Christian?
It depends on which verses one considers normative.
Reading the Bible Christianly
Last month Sojourners magazine printed “Not Everything ‘Biblical’ is Christlike,” a fine article by Stephen Mattson, one of my youngish Facebook friends. I highly recommend that relatively short piece.
In light of the recent controversy in the United Methodist Church, earlier last month a retired UM pastor in Georgia wrote an article titled “Be Careful Using the Bible.”  
And then, the first chapter of Chuck Queen’s 2013 book Being a Progressive Christian is quite good. He begins Chapter 1 with the assertion, “What the Bible says is not necessarily what God says.”
Or, it could be asserted that the Bible may be the “Word of God” but not all of the words in the Bible are the words of God. This is important to realize, for as Queen says, “The direct identification of God’s voice with what the Bible says has been used to justify all sorts of destructive biases and oppressive practices.”
I have written this article not to discourage reading the Bible. Rather, I am encouraging Christians to read the Bible “Christianly”—and to realize that many things can, indeed, be biblical but not Christian.


  1. This is a key reason why I have changed my thinking about the Church. Being evangelical in the original sense, but not "Evangelical" in the branch of the Church. The Evangelical branch leaves out most of Church history and tradition (St Paul emphasizes the latter) in teaching/catechising its members and converts. There is much to learn - but "Protestants" and the cults seem to avoid it. We really do need another Ecumenical Council - there is much division, and error needs to be tossed out - including some dogma of Rome. And those who grasp the "Red Letters" exclusively, seem to avoid many of the "Red Letters" to which they believe.

    Christ and His apostles all openly used the Jewish Scriptures and considered them to be the Word of God. The traditional Church does as well (Roman/ Eastern Catholic, Eastern/ Western Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and much if not most of the protestant Church). St Peter himself gives attribution to Jewish Scriptures as being directly from God.

    The first century cult known as the Gnostics were excommunicated. Marcion's cult was also excommunicated in the 2nd century for tossing out the Jewish Scriptures (among other things). Excommunication was not taken lightly - following Jesus' edict, they were given opportunities to repent and return to the catholic teachings of Christ and His Church. (Sadly, that was not the case in 1054 - a split which continues, but at least each recognizes the other as Christian, including Roman, Eastern, and Oriental branches, and much of the traditional Protestant branches. These have separated them in Communion, but not in recognition of the "holy catholic and apostolic Church". There continues to be attempts to re-unify - even to those excommunicated, if they will repent.)

    Church history is very important - but typically forgotten.

    1. I have problems with what is written in the first and last paragraphs also, but let me just make a brief response about the second paragraph.

      In Exodus 31:14 (to pick out just one example of the point I want to to make) we read, "Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people."

      So, did Jesus and the apostles consider that to be the Word of God? If so, they they follow that commandment? Jesus did not say anything about keeping the Sabbath day holy, rather, one of the charges against him was violation of that commandment. But why did Jesus not follow the Word of God? And why do Bible-believing Christians today not follow that commandment in the Old Testament if it is the Word of God?

      This is just one example of many which indicate that executing people who desecrate the Sabbath may be biblical, but it surely wouldn't be Christian.

  2. Here are comments received before 7:00 this morning from Thinking Friend Dan O'Reagan in Louisiana:

    "I think Billy Graham re-established biblical authority in modern preaching. The Bible is not about side issues. Preaching is about keeping the main thing, the main thing. For me, that is heaven and hell, time and eternity, missions and evangelism.

    "A person is hard pressed to find the approval of slavery in the life and teachings of Jesus. The only people advocating for equal rights for homosexuals in the Bible were in Sodom and Gomorrah and in Corinth."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Dan. I certainly agree that one does not "find the approval of slavery in the life and teachings of Jesus." In the same way, one does not find any approval for denying "equal rights for homosexuals" in the teachings of Jesus.

  3. Then shortly after 8:00, I received these comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Many pages could be written about the Bible and its interpretation, but I will spare you that. My own view is to let the Bible be the Bible. It is not a science book or a timetable of future events. It is a complex collection of writings and it is best understood in its original context. Although the Bible supports much of what Christianity teaches, they are not identical."

    1. Thanks, Eric. I certainly agree with your emphasis on a contextual understanding of the Bible--and that is why I think the last sentence of the Lewis quote is of great importance.

  4. In part of a longer email, local Thinking Friend Andrew Bolton wrote about "how Jesus sometimes contradicts or changes scripture in the Gospels. For instance in the Sermon on the Mount in the passages where Jesus says: 'You have heard that it was said…. But I say unto you….' Also the wonderful story of the woman caught in adultery and not condemned in John 8:1-11. This story to my mind means the death penalty is abolished by Jesus. The death penalty may be biblical but it is not Christian!

    "On the other hand Jesus affirms from the Hebrew scriptures love of one God, love of neighbour, love of the stranger and love of and justice for the poor. We would be so much poorer without the creation story of humans made in the image of God, the Exodus story and prophetic passages thundering for justice and protection of the poor, the vulnerable, the stranger, the widow and the fatherless."

    1. Thanks for your helpful comments, Andrew. In keeping with my emphasis on reading the Bible "Christianly," I would certainly agree that many of the passages in the Hebrew scriptures can, certainly, be read that way. Again, it depends on what we consider to be normative--such as the verses from the TaNaK that Jesus cited about loving God and loving neighbor.

  5. Thinking Friend Ron Kraybill in Maryland shares these words:

    "Thanks Leroy for this simple way of thinking about this issue. I’ve experienced that there are a lot of people with good conscious intentions who are unconsciously gripped by fear and respond with efforts to control others who trigger fear. The Bible becomes a weapon of power for some.

    "Regarding your last point, J Lawrence Burkholder, former president of Goshen College, used to say that when we use the Bible in the ways you call for, we study it more, not less, because we have to really engage with the texts, not just woodenly quote them."

    1. Thanks for your important comments, Ron.

      Yes, the Bible has often been used as "a weapon of power"--and some LGBT Christians refer to what are called the Bible's "clobber passages" that are used against them .

      I don't remember hearing Burkholder's comment before, but I like it.

  6. Then about noon I received this short comment from local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman:

    "Good clarification. Looks like this issue is still an issue."

  7. Earlier in the day Thinking Friend Vern Barnett wrote, "Leroy, who was it who said, 'You can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both'?

    "Thanks for your continuing reminders about how the Bible gets misused."

  8. Vern, I like the statement you cited but did not know who is to be credited with it. I have searched some and the only person that seems to be cited as saying/writing that is Bill Tammeus, whom you likely would have heard it from. Bill said that at least as far back as 2013.

    (If anyone has an older instance of those words being spoken/written, please share that.)

    1. I have just heard from Vern Barnet again (and I apologize for misspelling his name above), and he wrote that Marcus Borg's 2001 book is titled "Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally" and that he likely heard that from Borg when Borg was in Kansas City in February 2003.

      I have read Borg's book, the second time just a few years ago, but I had forgotten that subtitle. The "can't do both" part of the quote, though, may be Bill Tammeus's comment on Borg's point.