The other day, a columnist in my local newspaper in Georgia raised a very common objection among those who treat Biblical inerrancy skeptically. He wrote that “taking the literalist path to studying the Bible can be a tough row to hoe.” I think he states a very common misunderstanding that speaks to the failure of the church to properly teach.
I believe the Bible is infallible and inerrant. That means where the Bible speaks with authority, the Bible is applicable and without error. Years ago, major Christian denominations came together and wrote what is called the Chicago Statement that more fully explains this. In short, parts of the Bible are apocalyptic, other parts are poetry, others are prophesy, and others are prose. One must know what one is dealing with in scripture to understand how to treat a particular book of the Bible. I take Jonah literally. I believe he was swallowed by a fish. I take Daniel’s apocalyptic visions as visions.
Credit to the columnist for raising Old Testament issues like a woman having to marry the man who rapes her. Usually, when skeptics use the Old Testament they go for eating shellfish, wearing mixed fabric, or stoning lying children to death. I call those “shibboleths of the damned” because most often the people who pull those out are either Christians of a shallow and wavering faith or not Christian at all. Those who use them show more about their ignorance of Christianity than anything else.
Christians accept the nearly 2000 year old doctrine of progressive revelation, or what may better be referred to as incremental revelation. In the Bible, the God who seems aloof and genocidal slowly reveals the nature of His relationship between Him and us and between each of us.
The God who demands Israel wipe out its enemies is the same God who commands us to turn the other cheek in the New Testament. He is the same God who commands we love one another and is the same God who died on the cross that we might live. He did not change. He just, over time, revealed more fully His expectations of us.
Christians started the abolition movement understanding this. Scripture does not champion slavery, contrary to some. Over the course of scripture, God made clear slaves are to be treated as brothers and family. He did not come to overthrow the worldly order. He came to impose a new order. So he did not himself abolish slavery, but set in motion a new order that would. With women, Paul posited the revolutionary idea that they were sons of God and of his inheritance. Women could not inherit in the Roman Empire. By proclaiming both men and women as sons and heirs, Paul was saying both stand equally before God on their own. As an aside, this is why gender neutral translations of the Bible fail to capture the impact of Paul’s statement. The New Testament also makes clear the Old Testament food laws, civil laws, ceremonial laws, etc. no longer applied. The moral laws stay. The ceremonial laws do not. The civil laws become a guide for a government, any of which is there because of God’s will.
The problem, though, for those who would now say God is okay with homosexuality is that the same progressive revelation doctrine applies there. And what one sees is that while the lot of women and slaves improves and we have a more complete understanding of our relationship with God and are called to love our neighbor, we are still called to hate sin. People quote “judge not lest ye be judged,” but they misunderstand the passage and completely ignore that it ends with “go and sin no more.” That is to be our message in the world.
While the New Testament ends the old food laws, etc. Jesus himself maintains the Levitical prohibitions on sexual immorality, to which homosexuality is connected, continue. The laws of sexual immorality are part of the moral law. The punishment at the hands of man does not continue, but the sin is still sin. The Apostolic writings double down on this. Adultery, murder, rape, lying, homosexuality, etc. are all still sins. We are now called to love the sinner, but we are not to embrace the sin. So while relations between men and women grow in the Bible, God’s relationship with us is more fully revealed, and the relationship between master and slave dramatically changes, at no point in the course of the progressive revelation of the Bible does God’s treatment of homosexuality change. We are not to kill the gay person. We are called to love them and to call on them to repent. We are called to be relational with them. But loving the sinner does not mean we can love the sin or should turn a blind eye to it.
More importantly, we do not get to keep adjusting scripture. The Old and New Testaments are God’s complete revelation to man. If we get to continue the progressive revelation, what we wind up doing is creating a god in our own image. The Jesus we should all struggle with becomes the Jesus who is totally cool with us as we are. There is no reason to repent because we decide our favorite sin is no longer sin.
It is not a tough row to hoe at all. The objections of Christian liberals and critics have long had easily understood answers. Unfortunately, some churches would prefer to ignore those answers. They want to drop a Christian sexual ethic in order to lure in more customers. In the process, they water down the faith and build a bunch of shallow Christians — the very kind of wheat planted among the rocks that Christ warns about. A Christian sexual ethic is not some ancillary bit of faith, but a Genesis 1 foundation of faith. In both marriage and sex, we experience the divine. Consequently, God regulates how we are to experience it and deviating from that we pervert it, debase it, undermine it, and make it ordinary.
But saying all this makes you unpopular with the world. The things of the world hate the things of God and hate the people of God. A church watering down the sexual ethic of the Bible to conform to the world is siding with the world against God. Many American Christians behave no differently from their secular neighbors. They want to be liked by the world and the love the world as is. They have no real sense of Christian purpose anymore and when confronted with a bit of Christian doctrine that might make life difficult for them, they throw it away. They have taken the worldly view of love and substituted it in place of God’s love. They think calling for repentance is judging, which it is not. They see people in loving relationships who are often kinder than the fellow on the pew behind them in church and think surely that person is okay with God, even if that person is not.
In the book of Jonah, remember, it was the pagans who were more godly than Jonah. The men on the boat and the people of Nineveh did what God wanted and Jonah was the hard headed, hard hearted one. But pagans they were still without a right relationship with God. You should be in prayer for your friends who do not recognize their sin is sin. You should not decide it is not sin just because of how awesome they are. Unfortunately, there are more and more pastors willing to help Christians conform to the world and bring the world’s culture into the church.
There are a lot of Christians who have become so disenchanted with the behavior of other Christians, they have decided the pagans are the better Christian and therefore the pagan, secular values of the world are more Christ like. And above all else, they really want to be liked by the world and be seen as kind in the world. They want weepy Jesus who cries without angry Jesus who throws out the money changers. And to the extent they want that, they view their fellow Christians as the pharisees and money changers and the money changers and worldly pharisees as the real good guys. “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”