Is This a Bible-Believing Church?

April 27th, 2011
This article is featured in the The Living Word (May/June/July 2011) issue of Circuit Rider
Children Slain by Bears for Mocking Elisha, engraving by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)

A man recently asked me, “Is your church a Bible-believing church?” My first response was, “Yes, we are a Bible-believing church.” For example, I told him we believed that:

  • God created the heavens and the earth.
  • God gave birth to the nation of Israel.
  • God became incarnate in Jesus.
  • God sent the Holy Spirit.
  • God will one day end the age.

But I also told this man that while we were a Bible-believing church, we did not believe that everything in the Bible has to be taken literally. If so, then:

  • The earth is flat.
  • Women are to be subservient to men.
  • Slavery is approved by God.
  • God approves of genocide.
  • Sassy teenagers are to be executed.

I explained to this man that while we believe God inspired the Bible, Scripture was written by human beings in an ancient, prescientific cultural context that believed mentally ill people were demon possessed and women were the property of men. Looking skeptical, he said, “Give me an example of a passage of Scripture that you don’t take literally.” I then told him the following story from 2 Kings 2:23-25.

In this story, Elisha was walking down a road toward Bethel. As he neared the city, he came upon a group of boys. When the boys saw his bald head, they began to tease him, saying, “Go away, Baldhead! Go away, Baldhead!” In anger Elisha called down God’s curse upon the little boys. Immediately, two vicious bears emerged from the woods and killed them.

I said to my visitor, “Somewhere along the way, Christian believers must answer a crucial question about these kinds of troubling texts, which are so prevalent in the Bible. Are such passages meant to be taken literally? Does God really send man-eating bears from the woods to rip apart little boys for teasing a prophet? Or is this a campfire story the ancient Israelites told their children to engender respect for the holy prophets of Israel? I vote for the campfire story.”

In the end, this man decided he was not interested in our church. He was looking for a church that believed in biblical “inerrancy and infallibility.” And that’s fine. Our community is full of those kinds of churches.

Although this man didn’t like our interpretation of being a “Bible-believing” church, many others in our community do like our approach. In fact, over the past ten years, in spite of being located in a small town, over 1,100 new people have joined our congregation, causing us to double in size. We’ve learned that a lot of people are looking for a “Bible-believing” church of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.” Our church is in the business of providing grace-filled, open-minded, gender-equal, centrist, moderate, Bible-believing, life-giving mainline faith, and people flock to us because of that.

Let me give you just one example. Several years ago I preached a sermon series called “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” The provocative title of the series came from an actual question a young atheist once asked me. Let me tell you that story.

When I first met Danny, he said, “Preacher, you need to know that I’m an atheist. I don’t believe the Bible. I don’t like organized religion. And I can’t stand self-righteous, judgmental Christians.” In spite of Danny’s avowed atheism and my devout Christian beliefs, we became close friends.

Over the next year Danny and I engaged in numerous conversations about faith. During that time Danny softened his stance on atheism. One day, after a long conversation, he announced with a laugh, “I’ve decided to upgrade from an atheist to an agnostic.” Several months later Danny said, “I’ve had an epiphany. I realize that I don’t reject Christianity. Instead, I reject the way that intolerant Christians package Christianity.” A few weeks after that conversation, Danny said, “Martin, you’ve just about convinced me on this religion stuff. So I want to know—what’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?”

That question eventually led to a seven-week sermon series at my church. In the first sermon, I laid out several things Christians don’t need to believe. In short, Christians don’t need to believe in closed-minded faith. For example, they don’t need to believe that it’s heresy to believe in evolution or that women can’t be preachers. Over the next six weeks, I preached on what Christians do need to believe. They need to believe in Jesus—his life, teachings, example, death, and resurrection. A great benefit of these beliefs is that they provide promising answers to life’s most profound questions including: What matters most? Where is God? What brings fulfillment? What about suffering? And is there hope?

This sermon series was rooted in some of the most important passages of the Bible. It was indeed a “Bible-believing” sermon series. But it was also an open-minded, centrist, moderate/mainline version of Christianity. The series electrified our congregation, brought in tons of guests, and netted numerous new members. Several years later I turned the “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” series into a book and seven-week, congregation-wide initiative.

We are indeed a “Bible-believing” church. However, we offer a different understanding of the Bible than biblical inerrancy fundamentalist churches. We understand that the Bible is both human and divine. We completely affirm that the Bible was inspired by God. But we also affirm that the Bible is a human document. People, not God, wrote the Bible.

A concrete example of human involvement in the Bible is found in Luke 1. Luke began his Gospel by writing, “Therefore, since I have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account” (v.3 NIV). We clearly see human involvement here. Luke did his homework. He researched his subject well and eventually wrote the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Although God inspired Luke’s writing, Luke was fully involved in the process. In short, Luke’s Gospel is the product of divine inspiration as well as human insight and human limitations. 

I love the Bible. I believe the Bible is true and trustworthy and reliable. However, like most mainline Christians, I do not believe that everything in the Bible has to be understood literally. Christians must always remember that we worship God, not the Bible. The Bible points us to God, but the Bible is not God. Many years ago John the Baptist was asked, “Are you the Messiah?” John said, “No, I am not the Messiah, but I bear witness to the Messiah.” The same is true for the Bible. The Bible is not God, but the Bible bears witness to God. Therefore, Holy Scripture is central to our faith. So, are we a “Bible-believing” church? You bet we are!


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