Proverbs 29:18 is one of those often misunderstood and applied verses of the Bible. In a recent leadership meeting at church, I read this verse and explained this unfortunately reality. Too often this verse is used to emphasize the importance of leaders having a clear vision for the church and the KJV rendering is typically quoted, "Where there is no vision, the people perish..", and only the first half of the verse. Ripping out of it's immediate context results in us missing the intended message.
Although it is critical for a pastor and the people of the church to have a clear, focused, articulated, plan for the congregation, Proverbs 29:18 is a poor proof text. This little gem is about something truly of much more importance - the absolute necessity of divine revelation for knowing truth resulting in humanity's harmony with God and with one another.
Here are some modern English translations of the verse:
"Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom's instruction." New International Version
"When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful." New Living Translation
"Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law." English Standard Version
"Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, But happy is he who keeps the law." New American Standard Bible
"Without revelation people run wild, but one who listens to instruction will be happy." Holman Christian Standard Bible
These translations help us get at the meaning and intent of the original language. The Hebrew word hazon means "vision." But this is the kind of vision associated with divine revelation, a "Thus says the Lord" kind of moment. It is a revelatory word from God. The Hebrew word yippara means literally "to let loose." So, where there is no word from God, the people have neither instructions nor constraints and are let loose to their own inclinations.
The second part of the thought is a contrast. Whereas the lack of divine revelation leads to moral confusion and unrestrained behavior, the presence of God's law produces blessedness.
There exists a tremendous amount of tension, disagreement, hurt, confusion and anger within American culture among those who call themselves Christians in regards to the current push for so-called "marriage" equality. There is much finger pointing, name calling, and ugliness. This madness is certainly confusing to some in the church, somewhat puzzling to outsiders, and probably sadly amusing to skeptics. How did we get to this place? Sure, we can understand why non-believers might over time be persuaded to embrace the normalization of homosexuality, but how could Christians do this? Shouldn't those who trust in the Bible as God's revelation be on the same page on this issue? Is this behavior approved or disapproved by God? A simple question for which you would think Christians would have a simple and clear answer. Christians claim the same revelation from God. So, why do we find ourselves in such strong disagreement? Is the Bible unclear or is something else at play?
As I talk eye to eye and converse via social media with folks all over the spectrum on these issues, I believe more strongly than ever that our fundamental, irreducible, and irreconcilable difference is really about the nature of revelation. The real source of our tensions, conflicts, and impasses is about how we differ in our understanding of the Bible - its nature and its place of authority in our faith communities.
If we take Proverbs 29:18 for what it says, then we all probably agree that revelation from God is critical for belief and practice. At the very minimum, without it, we are mired in ignorance and confusion. At worse, as it declares, we inevitably become unrestrained people who end up exiting the boundaries that God has set, which always leads to disastrous consequences. How can we know anything beyond our own extremely fallible opinions about God and moral issues without revelation?
Of course, this leads us to basic questions that must be answered, which ultimately rest on personal faith. What do I really believe about the Bible? And where the rubber hits the road on that question is found in defining the nature of the Bible. How you answer that question will determine a particular approach to the Bible, which will in turn lead you to a particular application of the Bible, which will in turn lead you to your commitments and matters of conscience.
First, one must consider if revelation is primarily propositional or primarily personal. Is revelation what God reveals about Himself or is it the experience that a person has with God with the Bible as a key catalyst? The former sees the Bible as the means by which God has revealed truth about Himself to us. The key is to discover truth in the Bible and follow it. This is managed through careful study of the Bible coupled with the belief that the Holy Spirit enables our correct understanding. The latter tends to see the Bible as a record of some people's or group's experiences and expressions of their encounter with God. What is primary is one's own personal encounter with God. The Bible might help inspire you or give you insight, but what is most important and authoritative is one's own subjective, personal experience.
If the Bible is the Christian's source of revelation, however understood, then the issue of God's inspiration of it is also pertinent. How is the Bible inspired by God? How does that work? What does that even mean? In some way the belief that God has inspired the Bible is the idea that the book you hold in your hands is fundamentally different than any other writing. It is certainly the product of men's hands in the writing, collecting, preserving, copying, and translating, yet the idea of inspiration asserts that there is a divine superintending that has taken place over all of this. Of course, this is a matter of faith.
Yet, this faith in the Bible (and not in other writings) is not a blind, arbitrary faith. The reason I believe in the Bible is because I believe it to be God's primary witness to His Son, Jesus, the Christ. The attestation to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the commentary of its meaning and application to me and the church as recorded in the Bible is absolutely essential. Furthermore, the revelation given to Israel is the revelatory foundation for the New Testament that unpacks the significance of Jesus. It's nonsense to assert faith in Jesus and be His follower and hold a view of the Bible that makes its content suspect.
Of course, there exists a variety of views in regards to the dependability of the Bible. In other words, how far can you trust it to convey to you the actual words (i.e. ideas, doctrines, morality, etc.) of God? Some view it hopelessly burdened with questionable events, confused with contradictions, and mired in an irrelevant ancient context. Some insist that the ethic of Jesus is all that is truly important or trustworthy - the proverbial kernel of Christianity. This approach makes the reader the arbiter of what constitutes that "kernel" and what does not. These approaches make the individual or a particular consensus the functional source of authority, sifting the nuggets of truth from the myths, embellishments, and errors that pervade the collection of culturally antiquated writings. Hopefully, you can see that, as a Christian, viewing the Bible as anything less that fully trustworthy in its content is extremely problematic.
Although there has existed a wide variety of views on the inspiration and dependability of the Bible as God's revelation, it would seem to me that only two views are reasonable.
Option 1: The Bible is merely a collection of ancient stories of man's search for God, some of it mythological and some of it more historically reliable. Who can say for sure which is which? The Bible is just another human expression of our futile hope to find purpose for our existence and that our physical death is not our end. If God does exist, it's not the only or final word on the subject. On the issue of homosexuality, the Bible clearly condemns the behavior, but that was the product of an less enlightened and less tolerant humanity. We can simply discard such ancient prejudice because the Bible doesn't really constitute any kind of special authority.
I don't agree with this view, but I respect it as intellectually consistent within itself.
Option 2: There is a God. He created all that exists, including us. There is purpose to this existence, and our Creator has left us a means by which to understand the essentials in these matters. He has ultimately revealed His purpose in His Son, Jesus. Since the New Testament is the historical witness to Jesus, built upon the foundation of the Old Testament, then we regard the Bible as inspired of God and given through men. Other, so-called sacred writings, are not about Jesus, so we don't recognize those as inspired by God with truth about Jesus. Logically, if God left us this revelation of Himself, then it must be completely trustworthy. If it is not trustworthy (i.e. inerrant), then God himself has proven Himself to be untrustworthy. Yes, I'm aware of textual variations within the ancient copies of Scripture, but it seems to me that each of them are inconsequential. Yes, I'm aware of progressive revelation and how the new covenant in Christ rendered certain aspects of the old covenant fulfilled and now obsolete. And yes, I'm aware of interpretive challenges on some matters. However, God certainly can and has protected the integrity of his primary means of revelation, the Bible, and that on critical issues of doctrine and morality it speaks clearly. This is a matter of faith and intellectually consistent.
Settling for the option that God would reveal Himself in Jesus and then hand us a written revelation burdened with error or that doesn't give us timeless truth about salvation and issues of morality, including the homosexual question, isn't an intellectually reasonable position, in my opinion.
Relatively speaking, only a handful of people in history had the privilege of being eye witnesses to events or to interviewing the people who were (e.g. Luke). Countless more have only had the testimony of the witnesses to cling to, including us. If we doubt the trustworthiness of certain parts of the Bible, then what makes us think we can trust any of it with confidence? If I decide that certain stories or teachings are not true, or the product of a less enlightened era, then I have become judge over the Scripture. I will mostly like swallow what suits my taste and spit out what I find unpalatable. I must stand under the authority of the Bible as God's revelation. I must read it prayerfully and humbly, while seeking to discern accurately its meaning and proper application.
The reason this is on my mind is because I love the church. My calling is to be a responsible and faithful shepherd of a local church. My flock must understand that I do not lead them by my own authority, my own notions, or the latest cultural consensus. My calling is to lead them in the ways of God. And God has revealed how I am to do this. God has given us His revelation in a collection of writings. His truth must by necessity be propositional, trustworthy and clear. My experience is that we wrestle some with understanding the teachings of the Bible, but more so with simply believing and obeying the vast majority of its content that is clear.
In regards to the current debate on homosexuality within the Christian community, I suggest our real debate is about the Bible. The argument that the Bible is unclear is classic subterfuge. It's truly not a matter of clarity; its a matter of submission to authority. There is a growing population of professing Christians who simply do not want to submit to God's revelation on this issue.
We think sometimes we are debating an issue such as homosexuality, but in reality we are not. Bible-believing Christians for centuries have understood the Bible's witness on the subject. The real debate is about how we view the Scripture. Any Christian proponent of same-sex marriage currently has to work extremely hard to explain away the relevant texts, or as some are doing, simply dismiss those texts as too antiquated to really speak to our current debate at all. I think it's time for these folks to be honest. The debate is about the authority of the Bible, not about homosexuality. We know what the Bible says about the issue. What Christian supporters of same-sex marriage need to admit is that they don't want to believe those inconvenient texts that so clearly challenge their desire to harmonize homosexual behavior with Christian living. So, in the attempt to hang on to their Bibles and embrace a new sexual enlightenment that affirms homosexual behavior, they latch onto incredulous interpretations that primarily attempt to convince you that the Bible doesn't contain sufficient revelation to condemn homosexuality categorically. Basically, this constitutes a willful discarding of God's revelation, which brings us back to the truth of Proverbs 29:18, "Without revelation people run wild, but one who listens to instruction will be happy."
You may be tempted only to apply this truth to people on the planet who lack access to the Word of God; however, it seems that the truth of this proverb applies to those hold the Bible in their hands, yet willfully choose to ignore or dismiss it so they can accommodate a lifestyle of their choosing. We are certainly witnessing a significant segment of self-proclaimed Christians doing just this concerning homosexuality. Many pastors, like myself, see the clear and present danger this poses to the biblical witness on the family. And we cannot be silent about this.
Yet, I think the legal and ecclesiastical push for "marriage" equality is really just a conspicuous symptom that we left our commitment to God's revelation some time ago. What we are observing now is the proverbial "running wild" and "casting off restraint" of which we are warned. We haven't arrived at today's debate overnight. We are now simply reaping what has been sown for decades - American Christians who have a love affair with this world. Too many have lived a weak, anemic version of faith that lacks the strength to stave off the creep of spiritual adultery.
Church, we need to repent of so much. Our hearts should be broken with grief at what we have allowed to become normal in our churches. Maybe this current debate about homosexuality is a splash of cold water on formerly distracted faces. Maybe this crisis will help us see more clearly how we have laid down God's guiding revelation and picked up idols of materialism, recreation and competition, sexual indulgence, and all kinds of selfishness. We have lowered the bar and we are reaping exactly what we have sown. Our culture is progressively throwing off restraint. Please don't be naïve to the depths of depravity we will reach as we continue to throw away God's revelation.
We most desperately need now a course correction back to the Bible. It's time to stop fashioning a god to our liking and start discovering who He really is, including a serious reckoning with what He loves and what He hates. It's way past time to be diligent students of His written revelation, the Bible. It's time to choose. Will we live by God's revelation, or will we cast it off?
Church, it starts with us.
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