Evangelicals & the Bible, Pt. 5

Yesterday I cited a comment I’ve heard occasionally that indicates how some evangelical Christians regard the Bible.  They seek to understand the Bible primarily so that they can tell others what it says.

Those with this sort of anxiety need to understand that the gospel sets them free to enjoy open-ended conversations with others.  They can be fully genuine and even receive others’ questions as invitations to examine Scripture more closely for themselves.

This corrupted posture toward Scripture can also be driven by a desire to argue and demonstrate the superiority of one’s understanding.

I once had a conversation in which someone asked me how I regarded a certain passage in Ephesians 5 that stands at the center of controversies over gender among evangelicals.  I gave him a succinct summary of how I thought about it.

He then asked, “well, what are the implications of that sort of reading of the text and for an evangelical understanding of Scripture?”  I knew he wanted me to speak to a conflict in which he was involved, supplying him with ammunition for his next engagement.

I told him that I could only speak to how our family appropriates this text, how it works out in our home.

That didn’t satisfy him, and then he asked the magic question: “No, what I mean is, what would you say to someone who has a different understanding of this issue and how it should be applied today?”

I told him I would find something else to talk about.

I think he was disappointed.  He wanted me to supply him with arguments, responses, and counter-responses so that he could triumph in an ongoing conflict with some folks at his church.

That’s a perverted and destructive posture toward Scripture.

We don’t have the Bible for the purpose of fighting and squabbling, strategizing so that “our side” might dominate “their side.”  God gave his word to his people that we might gain a heart of wisdom, that we might love and serve God, loving and serving one another with gladness and singleness of heart.

25 thoughts on “Evangelicals & the Bible, Pt. 5

  1. Andy Snider

    Good stuff, Tim! I encounter the same thing all the time (as you well know!). Every fall I lead a class discussion of the question, “What is the Bible, and what are we supposed to do with it?” and it seems to be a fruitful way to begin a semester of theology.

    Maybe you can help me with a tension that I feel in this area: your answer, “I told him that I could only speak to how our family appropriates this text, how it works out in our home” is good in a scenario like the one you presented. But many of our students will be in a position of teaching (for example) that Eph text to others and leading them in being shaped by it. In that setting/role, they may be called upon to defend their interpretation of it. How do you envision them proceeding in that scenario? If it were you, wouldn’t you hope that everyone in your community will appropriate that text in the same way you and your family do?

    Thanks again for this series – some really helpful stuff.

    1. timgombis

      That’s a great way of beginning a theology course, Andy, especially since it’s often assumed we know what we’re talking about and what we’re doing.

      I answered this person in this way because I’m not a pastor of my church and our home is the primary realm in which we embody our discipleship to Jesus. If I was a pastor of a church, that realm would expand, obviously, to include our community. So, yes, I would indeed hope that the community would come to some consensus on issues like these and walk in a unified way.

      1. Andy Snider

        Right, so my question is targeted at how we conceive of our educational task. Is it part of our role to explore with the student how they might go about defending an interpretation in the kind of scenario they are preparing for in seminary? Put another way: is it part of our task to help them learn to ask the “what would you say to someone who says…” question in a different way – as a disciple and not as a debater?

      2. timgombis

        That’s a good question, Andy, and I’m not sure about the answer. It seems that we certainly can think through the concepts themselves and explore them from different angles, help them understand the importance of the concepts for ministry, etc., but it just seems to impossible to anticipate every possible interchange a person might have. And it seems to me that it’s up to each person to cultivate wisdom and sensitivity to engage people in the moment graciously. Further, most classroom reenactments are so utterly false and not at all true to life that they’re less than worthless–they give the impression that any sort of learning has taken place, which is an illusion, largely. So, I’d rather not try to anticipate conversations and explore the concept fully.

  2. Brian

    Hi Tim,
    There is no doubt that our prime directive and, indeed, privilege is to love God and love our neighbor. And you have certainly put your finger on that ugly tendency to argue. Yet, you may unintentionally be making a false dichotomy. Isn’t it true that we also need to know from scripture what “loving” looks like in various applications? Wouldn’t you agree that there is a place for being able to discern what is true and false, and to tell others? Would your friend have been okay if he lovingly wanted to present truth minus the attitude?
    Grace and peace,

    1. timgombis

      I’m not so sure, Brian. Even if the person to whom I was speaking was seeking to engage others in gracious conversation, his aim was to convince them of his view of a passage. I don’t think that’s a great aim in relationship. I’d rather see someone seek to grapple with Scripture, appropriate it, and put it into practice. Beyond that, it’d be good to come to understand why others see certain passages differently. And if it’s pretty plain that different folks come to different conclusions, then why not approach others in an effort to enjoy their company rather than to seek to direct conversations to areas where we disagree?

      1. Brian

        How do you see the injunctions in Scripture that direct loving correction of others and warnings against false teaching? Would you ever seek to correct another person’s behavior or teaching?

      2. timgombis

        Yes, in fact I (lovingly, I think) exhorted this person to beware of being divisive and of continuing a conflict or seeking to “win” in a debate over biblical interpretation of non-essentials. I warned him that the path of the divisive person who alienates himself from a community is a very difficult one and that he ought to think very carefully about what he was doing.

        When it comes to actual false teaching or divisive behavior, there are so many other factors to consider that it’s tough to lay out broad ways of thinking on that.

  3. Richard probert

    I believe you are being politically correct and not offering sound scriptural doctrine. What do you do with 1 Peter 3:15 ?

    1. timgombis

      Does not sound Scriptural teaching warn against those eager to fight over doctrine (2 Tim. 2:24)?

      With 1 Pet. 3:15, I am always eager to speak about the resurrection to those who ask.

    2. timgombis

      Just to add a bit to that, Richard, I’d say that 1 Pet. 3:15 has been perverted and misread to endorse an apologetic approach that is unbiblical and unChristian. Peter is calling on his audience to be ready to answer plainly that because God raised Jesus from the dead, they have hope that they, too, will be raised from the dead, and that this drives their present patience in the face of persecution.

      Peter is not calling on his readers to identify where fellow Christians differ over non-essentials and engage in argumentation over those areas of biblical interpretation.

      1. Thomas Gerlott

        Just to be provacative here, Tim, – but isn’t your post identifying where a fellow Christian differs in a non-essential and engaging in argumentation over that area of biblical interpretation, namely what it means for a Christian to give an answer in 1 Peter?

      2. timgombis

        Thanks, Thomas–good question! I don’t think so, since he asked me and I answered. I don’t know what he thinks about 1 Pet. 3:15, but if he asks me, I’m happy to explain how I think about it. If he differs, I’ll take it on board, give it a think, and if I still disagree, I’ll probably just leave it there. I do realize others think in other ways about it.

  4. deeplygrateful

    Thank you for the sincere challenge to submit to God’s Word. I need this challenge more and more as I consider future challenges that I might have in the ministry. Is my desire for “equipping” more of a desire for control? Not always, but all too often it can be.

    Thanks again for the challenge!

  5. Andrew T.

    While I agree one reason Christian’s debate amongst themselves about the bible is because “He wanted me to supply him with arguments, responses, and counter-responses so that he could triumph in an ongoing conflict with some folks at his church.” but isn’t it possible, there is another reason Christian’s do this (perhaps not in this case though)?

    Isn’t it possible that Christian’s of all sorts differ in their degree of spiritual maturity; that these debate mature us both in our faith and in our understanding? If someone challenges a belief I hold against principles found in the bible, either that belief will be weakened or strengthened.

    Either way, it is to my benefit to have that position scrutinized is it not? Similarly, if I hold a belief because it appears in the bible, and it is challenged, the question arises have I taken that principle correctly from the bible, in context, or have I imposed my own understanding onto the text? Doesn’t truth bears scrutiny, and debate explore truth?

    On the other hand, there are tired old arguments that have been hashed out, back and forth. Sometimes people would simply like to have a constructive conversation (because they are comfortable with the truth of their perspective) without having to justify it all over again, but the danger here is that we become complacent with truth. Even tired old arguments sometimes have new perspectives which expose facets that haven’t been considered.

    Your insight here, it seems to me, is true, but could be better served by asking about the motivations for such questions directly, rather than simply assuming. That might the thing that opens up honest, non-confrontational dialogue.

    1. timgombis

      You may be right, Andrew, but in this case his desire was to continue a destructive relationship and to vindicate his viewpoint. I wasn’t interested in helping do that, furthering division.

      Good study and healthy dialogue is always fruitful, it seems to me, but care must be taken to avoid having these descend into destructive arguments.

  6. Andrew T.

    By the way – I appreciate you pointing out [2 Tim. 2:24] and [1 Pet. 3:15]. These are two very good, pertinent quotes …

  7. Michael L Gulker

    Dear Tim,

    I find this series of posts inspiring. Thank you. In a time when so many Christians are seeking just the right information to shore up the faith and win arguments against the enemy, you are reminding us that the scriptures are not only for information but formation – formation into the kinds of people we need to be if we are to build up love of God and love of neighbor precisely at the points of conflict. May God continue to bless your work.

    Michael Gulker
    The Colossian Forum – President

  8. CharlesR

    Appreciate your insight here – and tend to agree, at least as you mention in a response that you are speaking as it applies to the “home/personal arena” and not as a pastor and within the church. Just a question as to your last paragraph about why we have the Bible – I find it curious that you would not quote 2 Timothy 3:16,17 and use the words of God here since it actually says why we have the Bible. Just wondering on what verse you base the reasons you that you list in this paragraph? It seems that reproof (criticism for a fault -Webster), correction (to make or set right – Webster) and instruction (a statement that describes how to do something – Webster) have to be part of the equation.
    Thank you – keep the Faith!

    1. timgombis

      Good point, Charles, I think that passage is appropriate. I’d just add that in the context, Paul is noting Scripture’s usefulness for Timothy as he reads and meditates on it and it reproves him and shapes him, etc. All these are true. I’d want to avoid going beyond the text and saying that Scripture functions in this way so that we can do this to others. But you’re right to point to this text, and others are appropriate, too, not least Pss. 19 & 119.

  9. Pingback: my commonplace | Bible, Wisdom, Love - my commonplace

  10. Pingback: Recommended Reading: More of Tim Gombis on Evangelicals and the Bible | Everyone's Entitled to Joe's Opinion

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