In several previous blogs I have alluded to a certain dichotomy within Christianity. I believe this distinction has existed throughout Christian history and is at the root of our disagreements about social issues today. I've suggested that I need to devote an entire blog to this underlying dynamic among us. I believe it is crucial to make sure we define terms as precisely as possible so we better understand one another and don't argue past each other. At least if we have a common understanding of terms and ideas, then our debates and conversations may be fruitful instead of frustrating. Below I'm going to give you definition, explanation, and examples of what I label biblical Christianity and cultural Christianity. Maybe you'll agree with my explanation or not. Of course, I know this is oversimplification, so I apologize for that up front.
The written testimony to Christianity, the Bible, has been important to Christians since its parts were written, preserved, collected and recognized as authoritative. Of course, the Old Testament was already long accepted by Jews as sacred writing, and the earliest Christians were Jews. The first generations of Christians recognized that certain writings produced primarily by the Apostles and others close to them were of equal authority and importance. By the middle of the 4th century, Christians had come to a strong consensus concerning the writings that now make up the 27 books of the New Testament. At a gathering of church leaders in 397 in North Africa, the organized church officially sanctioned the collection.
From beginning to end the means God used to bring about His Word was thoroughly human. Men wrote the words, copied the words, preserved the words, contemplated and discerned the words, collected the words, and established the words. It is by faith that the Christian community from the beginning regarded these collective writings, we call the Bible, as words from God. It is by faith today that I receive the Bible as the Word of God. I am not ignorant of the human means by which it arrived. However, this knowledge doesn't lessen my faith in the Bible. My faith holds to the belief that God superintended the entire process, delivering to us the words that He intended us to possess so that we could know the gospel and how to glorify Him with our lives. I do not worship the Bible, but I could know nothing about the God I worship without it. Therefore, it is precious and unique. It is absolutely necessary as the God standard that I must lay over my entire life.
You may not share this view of the Bible. You may not believe it its divine inspiration. You may believe it is peppered with irreconcilable errors, or that it simply embodies some men's evolutionary development of their ideas of God. If that is the case, then I would suggest that we are at an impasse and there is really no reason for you to read on. My appeal to something that you do not recognize will be pointless. But if you do believe the Bible is the Word of God, inspired in the words themselves and authoritative for doctrine and living, then I hope you'll consider the importance of what I'm unpacking in what follows. My concern is mainly for those who do believe the Bible is the Word of God and authoritative, but find themselves being drawn away from a biblical Christianity to a cultural Christianity that compromises that commitment.
Biblical Christianity is a commitment to know and allow the precepts and principles contained in the Bible to determine my beliefs about God and my views on morality. I approach the Bible as God's revelation, doing my best to discover the truth in it. The Bible is THE source of authority that trumps human opinion or rationale. Biblical Christianity's goal is to be faithful to God by being knowledgeable of the Bible and having a serious commitment to conform my thinking, choices, and lifestyle to it.
It is important to understand what biblical Christianity is not.
Biblical Christianity is not oblivious to matters of interpretation. There are diverse interpretations among fallible men and women on various doctrines, teachings and practices addressed in the Bible. Christians disagree over details concerning what the Bible teaches about baptism, church organization, spiritual gifts, predestination, and many other items. One could argue that if the Bible is clear in its teachings, then how have we arrived at so many differing views on so many issues. Certainly, this problem has to be laid squarely at the feet of human fallibility and traditionalism, which includes all of us. Therefore, just because I dogmatically hold to a biblical Christianity does not mean that I think I have an infallible interpretation and application of all its content. I simply don't know where I am wrong. However, I do believe that most issues are clear in the Bible and that Christians committed to a biblical Christianity do find more agreement than disagreement.
Biblical Christianity is not ignorant to textual issues in the Bible. If you have a good study Bible, you may have noticed in the notes that occasionally a word or phrase in the text may be noted as not appearing in the oldest manuscripts. However, the reason the words are included in the text is because they appear in the preponderance of ancient manuscripts we possess. We call these instances textual variants. There may be other issues in which differences among the Gospel writers are hard to harmonize or one detail of chronology doesn't jive with another. Some would say that these textual issues constitute "errors" within the Bible. And once you begin to speak of errors, then you begin to cast doubt upon the veracity of the whole. These textual issues may constitute unresolvable difficulties from my point of view. However, I find them inconsequential, and by faith I believe wholly resolvable if we had more information. None of these textual issues impact any pivotal doctrine of Christianity. I'm aware of these things, but my faith in God's Word keeps me focused on discovering its truth and applying it faithfully and consistently, not dwelling on what may be incomplete or elusive. The Bible tells us much, but certainly not everything we would want to know.
Biblical Christianity is not unaware of the differences between the testaments. One of the oldest criticisms of the Bible is the apparent irreconcilable differences between the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus and the New Testament. It goes something like this: The God of the OT was intolerant, angry, discriminatory. He laid down the law and punished severely. He favored His chosen people and excluded all others. He orders the utter destruction of the enemy and blesses obedience. The God of the NT (i.e. of Jesus) is just the opposite. The God revealed in Jesus is forgiving, loving and inclusive. This God is the one who is long-suffering and patient. He is gentle and self-sacrificing. He does not call down fire from heaven, but tells us to turn the other cheek. Anyone one can clearly see the difference!
Biblical Christianity is aware of the shift in certain matters from the OT to the NT. However, biblical Christianity has historically viewed these differences reflective of progression and fulfillment, not inconsistency and contradiction. With this view, much of the OT has been fulfilled and rendered obsolete. Jesus talked about coming to fulfill the Law and the Apostle Paul gives much attention to the relationship of the Law (OT) to grace (NT). Therefore, it's not a surprise that observances and ritual associated with the OT Temple, dietary laws, and the harsh punishments for offences have been superseded by the fulfilling and completing work of Jesus Christ. There is difference, but not incompatibility. The distinctions between the testaments, however, do help me maintain a healthy balance of God's severity and grace.
Biblical Christianity strives to know how the various parts of the Bible fit together and to discover the timeless truth contained within its pages. This view places great confidence in the Bible to be THE source for knowing truth about God and providing the moral compass we need to navigate ourselves faithfully through our culture. A Christian who holds to biblical Christianity desires above all, in his pursuit to be a faithful follower of Christ, to know what the Bible teaches and let it instruct his views on any given point of doctrine or morality.
Cultural Christianity in its outworking is something completely different. Its approach to the Christian life certainly includes a place for the Bible in a life of faith, but not a supreme one. There are Christians who hold the Bible in high regard, but do not ascribe to an infallible Bible. They believe that the Bible contains the essence of God's truth and that it is certainly essential for knowing God. However, one has to deculturalize it and peel back the layers of human distortion to get at the kernels of truth. Therefore, I have to determine what was the product of less enlightened religion and what fits with modern, more enlightened religion.
There are many cultural Christians who may say they "believe the Bible," yet they are significantly unfamiliar with its content and willfully stay ignorant through neglect of it. They identify themselves as Christian, go to church somewhat regularly, and attempt to live a "good Christian" life, yet knowing the content of the Bible is of little importance to them. It is impossible for them to pursue biblical Christianity because of their biblical ignorance. Therefore, they only have cultural Christianity to lean on if they want to make Christianity part of their lives.
There are some Christians who do know what the Bible teaches about certain issues and the principles it lays down, but choose to cherry pick what they believe is authoritative. Their personal experience and struggles and the prevailing cultural consensus overrides a commitment to the teachings of the Bible. In essence, they end up saying, "I don't accept that part of the Bible."
Cultural Christianity is fickle. The prevailing notions of a given generation overrun and control the mind of a cultural Christian. Ironically, cultural Christianity often appeals to the Bible for support. Inevitably, such appeals misapply the text by divorcing it from it's context. For example, when European and American Christians justified the African slave trade by appealing to places in the Bible where slavery was mentioned as a cultural reality, they ignored the fundamental differences between the biblical context and their own. They read their culture back into the biblical content - something we are all prone to do if not very, very careful! But if you read the totality of the Bible, it seems clear that you cannot justify the race-based, cruel slavery of Africans. However, many Christians were swept along into this forced marriage of views, rationalizing away any pangs of conviction and accommodating it to their Christian worldview. Realities like the slave trade, the Crusades of the Middle Ages, religious persecution of all forms, teetotalism, and segregation may have been all propped up and justified with the Bible, but they were not driven by the Bible. Other forces were at work and biblical Christianity was supplanted by cultural Christianity. Today, it seems that the Bible is being used to justify American materialism most crassly (i.e. prosperity gospel).
Cultural Christianity ultimately accommodates itself to the culture, rather than submitting itself to the teachings of the Bible. This is where I have to be careful. I have to remind myself that I am not somehow inoculated from this myself. This is why saturating myself with the Bible's contents is critical. They only way I can keep from slipping into the stream of cultural consensus, is by clinging to the rock of Scripture. Just as water breaks on a rock, so will the unbiblical notions of a world opposed to God. During every test, debate and personal struggle, I must run back to the Bible to discover what God wants me to think. The most dangerous thing for me to do is to think for myself! When I think I'm thinking for myself, I'm typically not. Something else is informing and ultimately dictating what I think. The truth is none of us truly think independently. We have been and are being shaped in our thinking by something. However, I can choose as an adult to continually renew my mind to the Bible. When we debate over homosexuality, I want to know what the Bible teaches. When we talk about gambling, I want to know what the Bible says. When we talk about social drinking, I want to know what the Bible commands. When we discuss abortion, I want to know what principles in the Bible should inform my view.
Cultural Christianity drifts in the opposite direction. The primary concern is to accommodate my economic, political, or social views to my Christian faith. Cultural Christianity often gives lip service to the Bible, but either stays willfully ignorant of some content or simply chooses to ignore what is too challenging or contradictory to personal views. Cultural Christianity can be orthodox on the gospel and compassionate. Cultural Christians can be sincere and passionate, just like me. But there is a difference. And that difference is in the identity of ultimate authority. Each Christian has an ultimate source of authority. I find that in my context that ultimate source of authority is pressed the hardest on social issues. And what I mean by social issues is the debate about abortion, gambling, alcohol, and homosexuality. There are certainly many other issues Christians need to be engaging, such as pornography, violence, poverty, and missions. But the first list constitutes the big four that those of us in the Christian camp can't get together on. I believe the reason the divide exists is because these are issues to which the culture has been and is increasingly giving its approval. Therefore the engagement between cultural Christianity and biblical Christianity is highlighted and the contrast between the two is becoming increasingly distinct.
Here is the bottom line if you are a Christian. Either you are a Christian who believes wholeheartedly in the truthfulness of the Bible or you do not. Either you have a desire to know the Bible and to conform your views to it or you do not. Either you are willing to go against culture if the Bible leads you there or you are not. This is not to say that I or anyone else who holds the Bible up as ultimate authority believes that we infallibly understand it all. Above all I have to remain humble and teachable as I pursue greater understanding of the Bible's contents and faithful application to my life.
For my flock that God has entrusted to me I will say this: It is my hope that you will pursue a biblical Christianity with zeal. I can't trust myself to my own thoughts or to the mere thoughts and view of others. I must commit my mind and heart to something surer and truer. I hope that your desire is to know God and His will through His Word in all things. I hope that together as a church we will have the discernment to see God's truth in His Word and the fortitude to side with Him always no matter what our culture declares otherwise. I hope that we will all be life-long, passionate students of the Bible, more desirous for its truth than anything else. Its my desire that God will break the chains of complacency and heal the disease of half-heartedness of cultural Christianity and replace it with a sincere, fervent, and bold passion for the Word of God.
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