Written by Pete Lowman
You can download the PDF of this resource here.
Isn’t the church evil?
- When people ask this question we have a great chance to explain the difference between `religion` – trying to earn our way to God by what we do, which never finally feels as if it has `worked` – and Christian faith, trusting Jesus for salvation only by what he has done for us.
- That sort of `religion` never satisfies. We never know if we’ve done enough. But this, in turn, leads to guilt, and anger.
- That’s why the Bible tells us that religion can lead to violence: the first murder recorded by the Bible, Cain killing Abel, is about religion that doesn’t work.
- Also, because of its great importance to our hearts, religion will always be at risk of being hijacked by evil people for their own ends. It’s happened throughout history, and it happens today.
- Not surprisingly, Jesus uses much of the sermon on the mount to reveal just how religion goes wrong.
- But where do we find the standards to critique religion when it goes wrong? Most people who criticise organized religion need to see that they’re doing so on the basis of values based firmly in Christianity.
- Our prayer is for our friends to reach the point where they may say, `I don’t like organized religion but my Christian friend is ok and their church is surprisingly alright`- when they sense the presence of the Spirit in our diverse community.
But doesn’t God hate homosexuals?
- God certainly does not hate homosexuals! He loves and values them so much – including practising gays – that he died in colossal agony for them, just the same as for straight people. We love gay people too; we don’t believe homosexual orientation is a sin, unless it turns into practice in thought or action; we rejoice when there are non-practising gay people active in our churches, including in upfront and leadership roles, and (given the percentage of the population that are homosexual in orientation) we pray that there will be many more.
- We also look forward to God bringing more gay people, including practising gay people, into our activities, and look forward to them turning to Christ, growing in holiness, and seeking God’s healing, just as we each and all need to do. Each of us in different ways has tendencies towards thoughts, feelings or actions that are against God’s will and result from the Fall, and this is no worse than any other such tendency.
- God does say clearly in the Bible that homosexual practice, equally with any other kind of sex outside marriage of a man and a woman, is wrong. Again, that doesn’t make it a worse sin than many others we do. But following Jesus is ultimately about trusting (and obeying) him; and in this case that means faith that he knows best about our sexuality.
- We are very aware that the Bible’s teachings about sexual issues raise very difficult and painful issues for many gay people, as indeed for many heterosexual singles; and we pray that any gay person will feel welcome in our services as they wrestle with them, whether they agree with us or not.
- But in the end we all need the humility to allow God’s will to be surprising to us; that’s how we know he’s a real, personal God, not one we’ve made up to say what we want him to.
A helpful short booklet is Nicky Gumbel, What is the Christian Attitude Towards Homosexuality? (in the Alpha `Searching Issues` series). For in-depth study of the relevant Bible passages such as Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-13, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Leviticus 18 and 20, see Holiness and Sexuality, ed. David Peterson, and Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (non-evangelical in its overall view of Scripture). Also Alan Chambers, Leaving Homosexuality, and Alex Tylee, Walking with Gay Friends.
But doesn’t the Bible accept slavery?
Slavery is evil; look at what the Bible says in 1 Timothy 1:10.
It’s good to be aware, though, that the old testament word translated `slave` doesn’t mean what we might expect. When God called Israel they were all a nation of runaway slaves escaping from serious slavery; and so it’s not surprising that, although they inherited the near-eastern system of labour, it became transformed. In the old testament a slave can appeal to court against his boss, and the boss can even be executed if he maltreats the slave. Kidnapping and slave-trafficking are crimes punishable by death (Ex 21:16), and Deuteronomy 23:15-16 has the command, unparalleled in any surrounding culture, that a runaway slave should not be handed over – which would have undermined the entire system if that were equivalent to what we call slavery. In fact Exodus arranges a ceremony for the slave who prefers the arrangement he has and doesn’t want to be free. This was not what we call slavery.
Neither was the Roman system, although it was worse than the Hebrew system for which the same English word is used in the Bible. But Roman `slavery` was not permanent; there was not a big separation between slave and free; it might even be entered into voluntarily as a means to a special job or to climbing the social ladder. It was a system that could certainly go wrong (just like marriage!); but again, it was not what we call slavery.
Nevertheless the Roman system was seriously flawed, and therefore we find Paul telling Philemon to treat his fellow-Christian Onesimus `no longer as a slave but … as a dear brother… both as a man and as a brother in the Lord` (Philemon 16). This must have transformed the whole system within the Bible-obeying church.
Tragically, however, the institutional church then allowed itself to lose the Bible, until the Reformation. But we still need to ask, who eventually broke slavery?
Melvyn Bragg, author of The Book of Books (not apparently a Christian as we understand it), writes, `In every recorded civilisation we have the acceptance of slavery. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, African kings, Indian princes, Chinese war lords… for millennia it seemed a natural and inevitable part of the human condition. But here it was abolished: perhaps the greatest humanising act in history.` Why? (It was immensely costly: compensating the planters for the freed slaves cost a sum up to half the British government’s annual budget!) Bragg says: `The abolition of slavery was driven by the King James Bible… People like William Wilberforce, who had a revelation after reading the Bible and saw it was his mission to have the slave trade abolished, and embarked on a passionate Christian mission fuelled by a daily reading of the King James Bible. He finally succeeded, at the cost of his health and his fortune.` Once the church rediscovered the Bible, slavery was doomed.
Bragg notes also the massive influence of the Bible on the slaves themselves. Black slaves in their millions in America educated themselves through the King James Bible (taken to them first by English preachers like George Whitefield). Many preached it and became leaders. They read it, read Exodus, saw Moses had said to the king about the enslaved Jews “Let my people go,” and this became their rallying cry. Bragg notes that this pattern reaches all the way through to Martin Luther King: the people who really moved the non-violent civil rights movement forward in America were the black, Protestant Bible-lovers saying 'Set my people free’ and quoting from Isaiah. `When Martin Luther King was shot he was alluding to the King James Bible.`
(See also ch.4 of Tim Keller’s brilliant The Reason for God.)
But why should we trust the books we have in the Bible?
Jesus was crucified in the mid-30s AD. By then the gospels were already being committed to memory, because rabbis like Jesus taught their disciples that way. (Middle eastern cultures that are not flooded by data in the way we are have retentive memories that may amaze us: many students leave Al Azhar University in Cairo today having memorized the entire Quran, which is 600+ pages in English translation.)
Anyway the four gospels were all in their final form, probably by AD 70, certainly by 95. And the intense persecution of the early Christians would have ensured that people who knew they might die unpleasantly (their families too) for what the gospels contained would be very sure to check their accuracy!
The four gospels were certainly not selected by Roman imperial power at the Council of Nicaea 300 years after Christ, as the nonsensical Da Vinci Code suggests. Quite apart from anything else, that council did not represent either the Christians outside the Roman empire, eg in Parthia (who would have had no reason to take any notice of decisions engineered by the emperor of a rival state), or the Christians within the Roman Empire already being persecuted as the church authorities became institutionalized. Yet these farflung churches affirmed the same four gospels. Much earlier, as early as about AD 180, Irenaeus could write that the four-ness of the gospels was an established and recognized fact as obvious as the four points of the compass or the four winds (see F F Bruce, The New Testament Documents, p.24).
Eventually heretical sects did emerge, and wrote their own gospels (compare today’s Mormons and their Book of Mormon), but these are mostly obviously fictional. Read them yourself and see (eg in The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by J M Robinson, adapted from the standard scholarly facsimile five-volume edition, The Coptic Gnostic Library, also edited by Robinson). Interestingly, their Jesus is more superhuman and less human than the real one – eg he doesn’t leave footprints. The most plausible of these productions is the Gospel of Thomas; but unlike the biblical gospels (where the first resurrection witnesses are women) this is very anti-female (among other problems); anyway it is clearly far later than the biblical gospels. Tom Wright argues that it was produced around 175AD. But the important point is that nobody is discussing this or any of the Nag Hammadi gospels in the first half of the second 2nd century; clearly they had not yet appeared.
As for the new testament books after the gospels, the only ones about which there was any uncertainty after the middle of the second century were a few at the end of the new testament - Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude, and (in the east – the west were fine with it) Revelation: the other books (including Revelation) were accepted by all, says Origen. Eusebius about a hundred years later lists the same books as accepted by everybody, except that he now includes Hebrews and Revelation.
The non-biblical ones that may still have been possible candidates for inclusion were the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Gospel to the Hebrews (apparently a version of our Matthew), and the Apocalypse of Peter. Also 1 and 2 Clement and the second-century Acts of Paul are included in some very early manuscripts alongside the Bible books, so it is possible they were respected highly as well, although we don’t know. Most of these still exist and we can read them for ourselves. But about the four gospels – which is what matters for evangelism - we have clarity.
(See Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History?; F F Bruce, The New Testament Documents; and C E Hill’s brilliant Who Chose the Gospels?)
But the Bible is full of mistakes!
- Have you really read it as an adult? What mistakes are you thinking of?
- Of course the Bible contains things hard for us to grasp. And so does science. (Is light made up of waves or particles? You could put it either way, says science. Is that a contradiction? No, but our understanding, and our verbal pictures, are limited.)
- For centuries people have attacked the Bible. Yet what contradiction or error is categorically proven? In so old and diverse a book, that is most remarkable.
- It’s superficial to attack the Bible without reading it. Why not join an exploratory Bible study with a listening heart, and see how God can speak to you through his Word?
For help on specific difficult passages see for example the Encyclopaedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer. But if we really want to understand the details of these issues we will need to grasp what we mean when we say, as many of our churches do, that the Bible is inspired by God, and `completely reliable as originally given`, as well as being our `supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.`
First, we’re saying that we trust it in the details. With any great literature, it is only when we understand the book as a whole that all the individual sections reveal their full significance. If the writer is good enough, we dig into all the odd corners to find their place in the whole: not unless we are convinced that we have mastered all a book has to offer do we dismiss any of it as dispensable or merely circumstantial. So with Scripture: the more we (prayerfully) study its obscurer sections, the more we find they all fit in and matter (2 Tim 3:16). So we find that the new testament writers often base their arguments on the details of old testament history: in Galatians 4, Paul demonstrates crucial matters from the minor points of the story of Sarah and Hagar; in Galatians 3:16 the use of the singular ‘offspring’ rather than the plural ‘offsprings’ is crucial to his case. Again, in Hebrews 7:1-9, the writer bases his argument about Christ's priesthood on the details of Genesis. These items are incidental to the main thrust of their old testament contexts, yet the new testament writers treat them as reliable, proving the nature of God's ways. To them, as to Christ, the old testament is a trustworthy whole. (And look at how Jesus himself assumes the reliability of the old testament in detail as he debates in Matthew 22:43.)
But let’s note too that we affirm that the Bible is completely reliable `as originally given`. Obviously it has occasionally been mis-copied or mis-translated in minor ways over the years, and scholars are sorting these issues out as increasingly reliable translations are produced over the years. Jesus had this issue too: `The Scripture cannot be broken`, he says (John 10:35), but the copies of the Scriptures he had, like ours, must have been ones where occasionally miscopying had occurred. Sometimes we can see this has happened where tiny numerical differences have crept in early on. But Jesus affirms that what God gave was totally reliable, and he chooses to have faith that this same God has protected his Word in everything that matters; and as his disciples, we exercise the same faith.
Secondly, we need to understand the conventions used by the biblical writers. We must treat biblical history as history, poetry as poetry; remembering, too, that the historical sections were written in the ancient middle east, not the contemporary west! Different cultures have their own ways of writing history; in England today, for example, if we begin a sentence “He said that....”, we can abridge or paraphrase without appearing inaccurate, more than if we use "He said" followed by quotation marks. Such conventions vary from culture to culture: if we ignore them we shall create unreal problems with non-existent ‘biblical contradictions’. The same is true of other conventions: biblical writers (like us) sometimes arrange their material by topic, rather than by chronological order; sometimes they paraphrase or quote another writer more approximately than an academic might do (although so do we, even in very serious conversations); they may report what was said even if (as with the words of Satan) it’s false, but they may not pause to say so; or they may (Iike us) use observational descriptions of nature (`The sun rose`). And different biblical writers from different centuries may have different ways of using round numbers; a different meaning for eg the measurement `cubit`; or a different method of dating royal reigns. Again, if we ignore these issues we shall create unreal problems with non-existent `biblical mistakes` and ‘biblical contradictions’. It is what Scripture says in its own way that God says.
(For further information read the two symposia edited by D A Carson and John Woodbridge, Scripture and Truth and Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon; also Inerrancy edited by Norman Geisler.)
But why in the end do we trust the Bible as `completely reliable`?
This is a big issue. Not all churches do. Most growing churches do: that is to say, they’re `evangelical`, rather than `liberal`; the ground of what they teach is that the Bible is completely reliable, and our supreme authority.
We need this confidence: it makes a huge difference to our lives. In the end, if we want to grow, we must be committed to this certainty that in the Bible God speaks, and therefore we listen.
We’re not going to cover the biblical manuscripts here. David Instone Brewer wrote in Christianity magazine that `The exact text of the new testament is known with much more reliability than any other document of comparable age. Very few manuscripts of other ancient texts have survived, and the earliest is usually a copy made hundreds of years after the original. For example, only one manuscript has been preserved of Annals 1-6 by Tacitus (the most reliable Roman historian covering Jesus’ day), and this was written 750 years after the original. The new testament, by contrast, has survived in thousands of manuscripts or fragments, and the earliest was penned only a few decades after the original.`
There is a limit to how much archaeology can do to confirm the Bible. http://biblicalarchaeology.org.uk/index.php has many helpful links, eg to Professor Bruce’s paper `Archaeological Confirmation of the New Testament`, http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/rev-henry/20_nt-archaeology_bruce.pdf . Another particularly respected scholar is Kenneth Kitchen; his books include On the Reliability of the Old Testament, and The Bible in its World which is online at http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/book_bibleinitsworld.html. A fascinating book, arising from a Channel 4 series, is A Test of Time by the non-Christian archaeologist David Rohl. Rohl proposes some new datings by which archaeology directly confirms much more of the Bible than most evangelical scholars are happy to assert. See also Edwin Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures.
Also impressive is the remarkable ability of the Bible to foretell the future; on this see for example ch.11 of Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
But in the end our reason for trusting in the Bible comes back to Jesus.
Before we believe in him, we may or may not believe that the Bible is 100% reliable; as we said in our first session, God reveals his truth to different ones of us in different ways. But let’s take it we have come to the conclusion that Jesus is God, and a God who loves us, wants relationship with us, and speaks. (We’ll be looking at the reasons for that next session.) Because of that we give our lives to following him. Then part of that involves following his teaching; and a central part of this is taking on board his view of the Bible.
It may go something like this. We read the gospels; we hear God speaking to us through them. We sense the wisdom, profundity, the sheer glory of what Jesus says – so much that is true, so much that is sublime. And we think: if ever a life was lived right, it was this life. Now, we needn’t be affirming that the gospels are 100% true, yet. But they have to be basically true (as we’ll see next session): written so very close to Jesus’ time, often by eyewitnesses, anyway for people who died for their faith in unpleasant ways and would have wanted to ensure that the gospels were true or at least very close to what Jesus really taught. But as we do that, something starts to nag away at us: he’s unlike any other religious leader, he claims to be sinless, and God, and the only way to God, over and over again. And as the Holy Spirit speaks to us we come to the point where we realise the Jesus who claims to be God and sinless and the only way to God either is a maniac, or a colossal liar, or is what he says; and we find that we cannot stake our lives on Jesus being a liar, or a lunatic; and we take a deep breath and say, So he is God; so You are God; so what now? This is next session’s main theme.
But for this session: please notice that this doesn’t depend on our believing in the historical reliability of Genesis, say, or Joshua. It doesn’t even depend on our trusting the gospels absolutely 100% - yet. But: once we do give ourselves to be Jesus’ disciples: what does following God mean for my Lord Christ? Where does my Lord Christ say God speaks? And we start to read the gospels and see Jesus saying that the scriptures cannot be broken, they’re 100% reliable. Messiah, God come to earth, he is unafraid to challenge anything in human religion, even things that might seem unchallengeable (throughout the sermon on the mount, for example; or rewriting the sabbath regulations; or blasting the Jewish religious authorities). But there is one thing he never challenges: he endorses the Scriptures unreservedly.
Over and over again, faced with Pharisaic traditionalism, or Sadducee anti-supernaturalism, we find his response is continually, ‘Have you not read…?’ (Matt 12:3,5, 19:4, 21:16,42; Mk 12:26). He sets God's Word authoritatively against human religious tradition, even that of the chosen people (Mk 7:6-13). He challenges the rebellious Jewish theologians, ‘Are you not in error because you do not know the scriptures?’ (Mk 12:24). (As John Stott has observed, Jesus was clearly unafraid to be a controversialist!) Even if we are still at the point of thinking that one or two of these verses could be non-historical, his overall approach is very clear: Jesus challenges everything else, but not the Scriptures. They are his authority; to him they are 100% reliable. Watch our Master; they must hold the same place for us too.
Dig a bit deeper. Ethics: the old testament law contains, for Jesus, no mistakes. `Until the heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter… will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished', he says in the sermon on the mount; `Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven' (Matt 5:18-19).
Then, Christ has a very robust commitment to the reliability of old testament history, and his teaching frequently - deliberately?!- builds on those very sections that would make later, theologically liberal, academics squirm with embarrassment! ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of man’, he says (Matt 24:37); the one is as historical as the other. Sodom, which might conceivably have ‘remained until this day’, will be judged alongside first-century Capernaum, and it ‘will be` more bearable for Sodom (Matt 11:23-34). Jonah's audience `will stand up` with the current religious gurus of the Pharisees and condemn them (Matt 12:41). Clearly these statements can’t be equated with something mythical like `Father Christmas will stand up at the judgment', or ‘As were the days of Frodo the hobbit, so will be the coming of the Son of Man'!- Christ is treating them as real history. In Matthew 23:35 Christ speaks of a series of deeds that will bring retribution on ‘this generation’ (which surely implies historical reality!), and they begin with Abel, from Genesis 4. Matthew 19:4ff is particularly interesting because there Christ cites a comment by the narrator of Genesis as an utterance of God Himself. Our Lord clearly views biblical history as real history.
Biblical prophecy is likewise, for Christ, God's utterly trustworthy Word, the fulfilment of which governed the future, even his own - evidently with no capacity for error. Continually he shows how his life, death and resurrection are in total conformity with old testament prophecy. (For example: Matthew 26:24; Mark 12:9-12; Luke 4:18-21; 18:31-34; 22:37; 24:25-27, 44-47.) For him, Bible prophecies are not part of some bygone culture that might be mistaken; rather, the dependability of the old testament is basic to his whole self-understanding. In Gethsemane he reminds Peter that twelve legions of angels were available for his deliverance, ‘but how then would the scriptures be fulfilled?’ (Matt 26:54). The biblical prophecy has no capacity for error; he is God come to earth, and it determines what he does. It’s 100% reliable.
So why then do we rely on the Bible? Not because we have videos of the Fall or the Flood, or because we have instant solutions for every apparent biblical difficulty. (We don’t have ‘instant solutions’ for the problem of suffering either, but we still trust in the love of God.) Nor just because this week BBC2 or Channel 4 showed a documentary that was in our favour. Scholarly fashions rise and fall; moral fashions do too. We’ve got to get beyond all that. It’s because of Jesus, on his authority, that we say, What Scripture says, God says, and as his radical disciples we believe and obey it. Our faith in Scripture is a part of following Christ; if we are his followers, our submission to its authority and reliability must be as unqualified as his.
And it’s as Jesus' followers likewise that we make the crucial refusal to correct God’s Word by current opinion, preferring rather to let our own decade's limited conclusions be corrected by the eternal Word. Ultimately, this choice - what finally shall we base upon, God's Word or this decade's opinions?- is probably the fundamental difference between the `evangelical' and the `liberal'; and this is why we are `evangelicals`. For which is to be the final judge, Scripture or our contemporary opinions? Are we to correct scripture by what we (at this moment) consider reasonable, as `liberals` do? Or do we, as `evangelicals`, allow the limited thinking of our decade and culture to be corrected by the eternal Word?
This is probably the central divide in Christianity, and nearly all fast-growing churches are on the evangelical side of it. For both scholarly fashions and moral attitudes (eg on divorce, or sexual ethics) change and waver, so that what seems obvious to one generation seems bizarre to another. And if the Bible's reliability is made subject to the approval of our latest opinions, then we cannot speak with confidence as mouthpieces of the God who sees from beyond our uncertainties: we’ll be blown around by every breeze of intellectual style.
When Paul reminds the Corinthians of what is ‘of first importance’, he stresses that the gospel occurred ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15:1-4). Only if God has clearly spoken can we speak our gospel with certainty as ‘Thus says the Lord’; opinions are not enough when salvation is at stake! If we don’t have a trustworthy Word from heaven, our liberating gospel proclamation will dwindle, in time, into a mere exchange of religious views that never comes close to `conversion' (and we certainly see that happen). Likewise, it is only if our teaching and ethics are founded on a trustworthy Word from God that we can be certain they are more than our own bright ideas, and so be able to march with confidence against the fashion of our particular decade. Prophetic critique and radical holiness build on the certainty that ‘this is the word of the Lord’!
Of course this doesn’t mean we understand everything in the Bible, nor that we are interpreting it correctly. It isn’t always easy to hear what the Word, rather than our decade or background, is saying; but it’s what Scripture actually says, not what we misunderstand it to say, that God says. So we’ve got to dig in and learn. We need to be uncompromising (see Galatians 1:8, Jude 3) where it’s clear, but humble where it isn’t.
Above all this is a practical matter. If we really believe that this book, and nothing else in the world, is the living word of God, then we will soak ourselves in it, reading the whole of it, reading it in quantity: we read no other book in fragments as we do Scripture! (If we read less of it than of the newspaper, then assuredly we believe the newspaper to be more indispensable than the Bible; and the newspaper rather than the Bible will shape our attitudes. Ideally we’ll be prayerful readers of both!) We’ll prioritize our time with God’s Word, picking a good time daily to read it, and then protecting that time. And we’ll note down our discoveries, and turn them into worship and prayer, and share them, and obey them (even when we encounter something we don’t want to hear); we know that God wants to lovingly reshape our life through them! And our feet will be on solid rock; we have the word of God, we have truth, we have certainty.
And most important, when we set our hearts on such a vibrant spirituality we are following Jesus. ‘What Scripture says, God says’: that was Christ's teaching, and his life was shaped by total faith in and unqualified obedience to God's flawless Word. As his followers, we cannot do otherwise.
(For further reading see for example John Wenham, Christ and the Bible, or The Foundation of Biblical Authority, edited by James Montgomery Boice.)
© Pete Lowman 2012.