The unfortunate reduction of Christianity to “believing the Bible”

From billboards to pulpits to social media postings, we are told to turn to the Bible for answers.

Indeed, many answers may be found in those ancient and inspired pages. But, oh, there are questions as well.

And the questions are more important to faithful living than scouring this collection of sacred writings for easy or predetermined answers to topics that are often unaddressed.

Jesus certainly valued questions. The Gospels record him asking them by the hundreds — often when someone made an inquiry of him.

Some of Jesus’ questions seem to come with a bit of exasperation. So just imagine how he feels about our feeble efforts at faithfulness.

He would surely repeat himself to us:

“Why are you so afraid?” (Mark 4:40)

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46)

Jesus rarely gave a direct answer — or enumerated truth in ways that draw attention and click-throughs today.

He did give a clear, two-point answer to the question of which is the greatest commandment.

However, many modern Christians prefer downplaying that response — and publicly posting 10 earlier commandments.

Those better fit their legalistic needs than facing the challenges of deeply and broadly loving God and neighbor.

Also, in response to questions, Jesus might tell stories from which truth could be extracted by those willing to love God with one’s mind as well as heart.

And he concluded a clarifying story — regarding the great commandment — with a question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor…?” (Luke 10:36)

Jesus took that approach over demanding strict doctrinal allegiance or creating ideological voter guides. Therefore, his life and teachings provide for all disciples the understanding and the practices essential to mature faith.

By raising questions, telling stories and summarizing all the laws and prophetic teachings in a two-point commandment, Jesus helped his followers become more comfortable with a God who is beyond full comprehension and certainly beyond human control.

Living with mystery while seeking to follow Jesus beats turning Christianity into a checklist of “right” beliefs — that treats God and the Bible as holy vending machines.

So what if we turned to the Bible for better questions rather than preferred answers?

The Bible’s purpose is not to create confusion but neither does it seek to reduce God to its leather-bound pages.

At its best the Bible comforts, inspires, instructs, convicts, creates hope and challenges its readers to rethink old ways — even deeply ingrained ones— that just don’t square with what Jesus revealed. Then to redirect oneself, even when uncomfortable, to Jesus’ better ways.

At its worse, the Bible becomes a source of proof-texting one’s preconceived beliefs and prejudices rather than expanding one’s mind and heart that leads toward a more faithful understanding and practice of what it means to be followers of Jesus.

Oddly, one of the greatest diversions from a primary commitment to following Jesus is the popular shift within Americanized Christianity to a preferred emphasis on “believing the Bible.”

This approach creates enough distance from Jesus to claim something is “biblical” or even “Christian” while ignoring what he said and did.

History is replete with human carnage at the hands of those who claimed a high belief in the Bible — but acted in ways unlike its primary message and culminating figure. And, sadly, that continues today.

Biblical interpretation is a topic requiring more attention and space than a brief post can address. But it starts well with a confession that none of us brings an unbiased perspective to our efforts to understand the biblical revelation.

So, again, asking good questions is a more humble, honest and accurate approach.

Mennonite scholar Willard Swartley raised a few of those (among others) in his 1983 book, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald Press):

What is the relationship between divine revelation and the culture in which the revelation is given and perceived?

Does the Bible say only one thing on a given subject?

To what extent do the interpreter’s predetermined positions, even ideologies, affect the interpretive task?

How is all scripture to be considered in light of Jesus?

Those questions are a really good start.

Christian faithfulness is not a call to endorse or embrace some prescribed and often politicized “biblical worldview.”

It is a call to encounter the Bible for its intended purpose and to move off its pages to walk in the ways of Jesus as conveyed in the Gospels.

For professing Christians to extract biblical mandates or justification for attitudes and action at odds with Jesus’ life and teaching reveals a higher commitment to something significantly lesser (including “believing the Bible”) than following Jesus.

Extracting answers while ignoring the important questions raised by the biblical texts is more likely to produce reinforced prejudices than divine truth.

The starting blocks in pursuit of biblical truth are confessions that we see dimly and can never fully grasp the divine.

And there is an important difference between confusion and mystery.

The latter is what the Bible conveys to finite humanity about an infinite God.

Yet the greater nature of God is love.

It is an inclusive love revealed and offered— by Jesus’ example in word and deed — for us to experience and to extend.

How do we know that?

For the Bible tells us so.