As a young boy, my friend Tommy and I would hold a weekly competition for church voice supremacy. Now this wasn’t a formal contest, sanctioned by some adult or official in the church. This was of our own doing, a contest for just the two of us, chico v chico.
The rules were simple. It was game on once group singing began during the portion of junior church called “song service.” With lungs bursting and mouths open wide, sound would gush forth with a fury fellow singers called “noise.” Melody was second order and pitch and intonation didn’t count. Decibels were the goal and lots of them at that.
Our favorite song was “the B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me, I stand alone on the Word of God, The B-I-B-L-E.” Although the song was short in length, we’d routinely sing it through multiple times. And by the last repetition, I’m told, we would both be beet red in the face, no linger singing but full-on shouting. An early onset of biblical literalism, faithful to Psalms 47:1 “Shout to God with loud songs of joy!”
The origin and author of this familiar song are unknown, but it’s been found in hymnbooks since the 1930s and a great example of how kids were introduced to basic church doctrines through song. “Standing alone” on the Bible was one of our tradition’s fundamental faith tenets, reflective of Martin Luther’s famous declaration of Sola Scriptura which means “by scripture alone.”
Phrases like “the Bible says” and “according to Scripture” peppered our discourse. We saw this bible centric focus as essential to our faith, serving both an authoritative and exclusionary role. It contained the final word of truth and we held fast to it, reminiscent of the opening scene of Gladiator where General Maximus Decimus Meridius cries out “Hold the line.”
A Bible-centric America
According to PEW’s recent survey data, about half of America believe the Bible should influence U.S. laws. That percentage jumps up into the low 70s for either white or black protestants and even higher to 84% for white evangelicals.
When Biblical influence comes into conflict with the will of the people, then 27% of Americans or roughly 50% of white or black protestants and 65% of white evangelicals side with the Bible over the will of the people. Re-sorting the data by political parties yields 40% of Republicans and 15% of Democrats would choose the influence of the Bible over faithfulness to the constitution.
Yet it’s not clear what this Bible-first priority means in practice. Many Christians believe that the Bible is the final authority in all matters of faith, morals, and truth. They echo the apostle Peter’s famous declaration “we must obey God rather than men.” They see the defiance by the prophet Obadiah who hid hundreds of prophets in opposition to Jezebel as a biblical example to follow. They say such choices are merely “putting God first,’ something any faithful Christian would do. To them, choosing the Bible over the will of the people just seems right from a perspective of faith.
Fair enough. But it’s still not clear what sort of actions must trump “the consent of the governed,” a hallowed phrase from the Declaration of Independence. Now this is a document most white evangelicals believe to be divinely inspired with this enshrined phrase coming from its most famous part: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Right that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Some, like Representative Lauren Boebert, avoid this contradiction by saying putting God first means that “the church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church.” Leaving aside the constitutional difficulties with this statement, the first and obvious questions are “what church and what should they direct?”
What if we asked the black protestant church to direct the government? If a high fidelity to the Bible provides the standard for trumping the will of the people, then they’ve got the goods. Black protestants are just as likely as white evangelicals to assert that “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”
If we did that — accepting the outcome of biblical truth based solely on how seriously the Bible is taken as the repository of truth — white evangelicals would be in for quite the ride given black evangelical perspectives. Views about the “Christian” response to dealing with marginalized segments of our society would all have to change. Rather than favoring laws to prevent entry of refugees, as most white evangelicals do, people of “biblical truth” would now oppose such laws.
Perspectives about ethics would have to change, elevating the importance of immorality as a deal breaker for elected offices.
Perspectives about justice and protecting the innocent would have to change. The graph below shows the percent of Americans, sorted by race and belief biblical literalism, who believe freeing guilty is a worse judicial injustice than convicting the innocent. (Note to bible literalists: one of the six things God hates are “hands that shed innocent blood (Prov 6:17))
Perspectives about racial issues, i.e., opinions about reparations, monuments, racial dialog, and enforcement policies, would have to change.
Who’s in Charge?
I could go on, but you get the picture. A strong belief in and fidelity to the bible doesn’t guarantee congruent outcomes. Even by those who take scripture “literally, word for word.” None of us see through a glass clearly. None of us, like the apostle Paul, have attained perfection and are hence without error. We all bring life experiences and cultural values to our biblical understandings, myself included. Those values affect our perspectives, suggesting that “where we stand depends upon where we sit.” Hence frequent appeals to biblical authority when said with a sense of certainty, should raise a red flag of caution.
We expect our “theology” to drive beliefs and actions and have convinced ourselves that it does. And to a limited degree that’s true. But we also live in a polarizing age where politics is now a first cause for people’s beliefs. Religious beliefs are not exempt as they too can lie downstream of politics. We evaluate issues based on political criteria and then justify them using religious language.
With over 33,830 denominations worldwide, each with their own set of doctrines, we’re never going reach complete agreement in our interpretations of scripture. Protestants sharply disagree about whether or not man has free will. Many protestants are cessationists, believing tongues, prophecy and healing ceased with the Apostolic Age. Yet over 27% of world Christians who identify themselves as charismatic or Pentecostal believe the opposite. There are at least seven distinct atonement theories of Christ’s crucifixion, each yielding different understandings on how men and women become reconciled to God. Heck, we can’t even agree on what books should constitute the Bible with 66 books in the Protestant, 73 in the Catholic, 79 in the Greek and Russian Orthodox, and 81 books in the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible.
Should we then throw up our hands and abandon the notion of biblical truth? Not in the least. Contending for the faith is a scriptural mandate. The core of the issue is in how we contend and the outcome of our contending.
Whether Catholic or Orthodox, Calvinist or Armenian, the Bible shows us how to contend. Micah 6:8 and Philippians 2:3 call us to walk in humility, considering others before ourselves. Eph 4:2–3 instructs us to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” 1 Cor 16:14 says to “do everything in love.”
The “we see through a glass darkly“ message of 1 Cor 13:12 changes our perspective. It reflects the obvious — that we fallen, fallible, people fraught with biases and “blind and bound” by the groups we are in. Only the God of Isaiah 46, who knows the end from the beginning, sees clearly. Our claims of clarity then miss the mark when we rigidly appeal to “bible truth.” Certainty and humility are non-intersecting and unless our truth claims pass through humility, they become even more susceptible to error.
A Modest Proposal
We could unpack this further, but it’s not really necessary. We know the way.
But it’s a way that’s narrow, not broad, as it requires dealing with our human nature through an honesty about ourselves and our tribal associations. So here’s a few suggestions on how to appeal to scripture in our statements and arguments while being faithful to the “glass darkly” insight of scripture, recognizing that we all make such appeals, myself included (as I’ve done so in this blog).
- Be wary of a knee-jerk protection of tribal narratives. Then be doubly skeptical about ourselves, recognizing our innate susceptibility for self-deception.
- Be mindful that other faithful Christ followers read the Bible differently — and might even be right.
- Consider others before ourselves (Phil 2:3), funneling all our words and deeds through love with humility.
- See the Bible as unveiling the story of God, rather than as a rulebook to be proof texted (as Shakespeare once penned, “Mark you this Bassanio, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose)”
- And then may others say, when all things are said and done, that they witnessed a fruit-of-the-spirit-first demonstration of Christ-likeness in both our conversations and appeals to scripture.
Back to the Survey Question
So, is a “Bible-is-the-final-word” over will of the people viewpoint faithfully Christian? My answer: theoretically “yes on occasion” but practically speaking, “likely not.” Here’s why.
A “Bible-is-the-final-word” over a will-of-the-people viewpoint requires a sense of certainty about one’s understanding of scripture. In doing so, it:
- Avoids the biblical teaching of our own fallibility and inherent human limitations.
- Cancels the value and contributions of others — those, scripture says, we are to consider “before ourselves.”
- Implies that other viewpoints are anti-biblical, including those based on differing understandings of scripture by Christians equally committed to scripture.
- Limits the “God who works in you [e.g., others too] to will and to act on behalf of His good purpose.”
- Skirts the scriptural admonition to live mutually and reciprocally with “one another” — an admonition to believers mentioned 100 times in the New Testament.
But what about “putting God first” and prioritizing faithfulness to “Biblical Values?” Answer: of course we should prioritize gospel verities. We should walk in unity so that, in the words of Jesus, the “world will know that you [The Father] sent me [Jesus] and have loved them even as you have loved me.” We should exhibit the fruit of the spirit (peace, forbearance, kindness, gentleness) rather than the works of the flesh (divisions, dissentions, strife, and enmity). We should do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. All of these are first order gospel priorities. All of these require demoting ourselves while elevating others. And all of these add weight to the will-of-the-people side of the scale.
But what about the “obey God rather than man” passage: don’t we serve an audience of one? But do we really know which side God is on, especially when people of “faith” reside on both sides of a policy issue — and they almost always do? If “men were angels,” as Madison penned in Federalist Paper №51, perhaps it would be more clear. But we are not angels, prone to missing the mark in our opinions, actions, and attitudes. Hence the value of a constitutional form of government with checks and balances and a “will of the people” bottom line.
But what if you believe that the issue is so indisputable that there can only one possible Christian faith-based policy stance? Abortion is the quintessential example of this objection as many people see this issue through a lens of moral certainty. Here the will of the people is irrelevant for many. Restricting abortions through restrictive legislative action is the only acceptable outcome.
Yet other paths can reach the same destination. Other legislative actions like child allowances, a love-your-neighbor move, offers the possibility of reducing abortions on a scale roughly equal to that expected from restrictive actions like the repeal of Roe. Here are two paths, each yielding similar outcomes in the protection of the unborn child. Yet each promoted very differently in the public square, especially with respect to its connection with Christian faith. Makes you wonder whether it’s a Bible-is-the-final-word issue or my political-perspective-is-the-final-word.
“Most of us are not really approaching the subject [scriptures] in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it [them] in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party.” ― C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity
I worry that a “Bible-is-the-final-word” over a will-of-the-people viewpoint in today’s constitutionally formed society works like a gateway drug to becoming beguiled with the slippery slope of authoritarianism. Believing people on the other side of a policy issue have no say or vote in the matter violates core principles of liberty. It falls short of basic civic, moral, and scriptural standards.
Even worse, it violates basic scriptural admonitions through its sense of certainty, lack of humility, and failure to contend with our human weaknesses. It fosters discord and strife, erecting a wall of division between people within the body of Christ. In short: it privileges “me,” reinforced by those “like me,” at the expense of a harmonious “we.” These are all fatal errors and we would do well to heed Christian writer G.K. Chesterton’s response to the London Times question: “What’s Wrong with the World?”
G. K. Chesterton
The Way Forward
“And yet I will show you the most excellent way…Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking…”