If pastors are to shepherd churches in which there is a desire to understand the meaning of the world and apply it to worship, obedience and ministry, some will need to adjust their understanding of their doctrine of Scripture (or their theories of applying Scripture).
A strange paralysis has come over many evangelical pastors. They are immobilized when it comes to speaking on certain matters which require knowledge acquired outside the Bible. If they need to consult non-biblical sources to apply biblical principles, then somehow the Bible is beholden to the opinions of men. For them, this is mingling iron and clay, inspired revelation and fallible human information. They do not want to ‘go beyond what is written’, and so where the Bible is silent on applications, they do not speak. They do not want to be (rightly or wrongly) associated with ‘legalism’, a term broadly used by many to mean binding men’s consciences to applications without biblical warrant. This leaves them voiceless on a plenitude of matters, for Scripture is certainly nothing like the thirty-nine volume Jewish Talmud, which sought to apply the Torah to just about every conceivable event in life (albeit sixth century Jewish life).
There is something in the attitude of such pastors to be commended. First, it is often motivated by a protective attitude toward Scripture. Scripture is never to be considered on the same plane of authority as the judgements and opinions of men. It is natural for every Christian who believes in the inspiration of Scripture to adopt a defensive posture against anything that seems like competition for Scripture’s authority.
Second, it is willing to muzzle its own voice. Considering the willingness of some to say in the Lord’s name what He has never said, one does appreciate men who consider the warning of James 3:1 before publicly teaching something.
On the other hand, there are also things in that attitude to be censured. First, it is inconsistent. Every pastor makes applications using non-biblical knowledge. The simplest of applications must supply some modicum of knowledge about the world outside the Word for the application to make sense. Preaching against speeding, gambling, drug abuse or Internet porn requires some knowledge from the world (speeding breaks the law, gambling is a frivolous use of money, drugs destroy and enslave the body, Internet porn provides images of people to lust after). Most often, this information is such common knowledge, or so obvious, that we hardly notice that we obtained it outside the Scriptures. We imagine that we went from Scripture to application with nothing in-between. The inconsistency is seen when the same men who would regard such applications as “clearly taught” by Scripture balk at providing applications where the extra-biblical information required demands a more critical judgment, or the opinions of those who have earned the right to hold such opinions.
A second reason for censuring such an attitude is that it is often simply fearful. In an era where sola Scriptura means avoiding enlisting any human knowledge outside the Bible when preaching or teaching from the Bible, and where anyone who makes sermon applications that are specific to contemporary life runs the risk of being called ‘legalist’, some just want to avoid the controversy, and know how to do it. They know where people’s cherished idols are, and they skirt around those issues to avoid the pitch-fork wielding legalist-hunters, or the inevitable disgruntled church member, or “the limiting of our Gospel-influence by majoring on minors”.
But as I’ve argued elsewhere, this overreaction to either Roman denials of sola Scriptura or more modern pulpit abuses has not produced a sleek, supple Christianity, but an emaciated one, that can barely speak to its own generation. A secularized church is both implausible and irrelevant.
Fully Christian churches and those who lead them must recover a right understanding of sola Scriptura. The teaching of sola Scriptura was never meant to limit all of human knowledge to the pages of the Bible. A pastor who accepts the primacy of Scripture does not have to reject information obtained from the world around us. What sola Scriptura means is that all the facts we collect from the world, and from unbelievers, must be interpreted within the framework that the Bible establishes. Within the ‘grid’ of God’s special revelation, we should not fear to allow the facts to speak for themselves.
Conservative Christian pastors are, in so doing, not trying to elevate human opinion, or demote Scripture, so that they have equal authority. They are seeking to understand the meaning of the world, its inhabitants, and their creations within the framework that God Himself has provided. We can safely listen to unbelieving economists, doctors, lawyers, composers, engineers, critics, scientists or other people skilled in their fields. We may disagree with them when they interpret some of the facts of their domain of knowledge according to a secular worldview. Being unregenerate, they will not be able to speak cogently on how their expertise could be applied to worship and the service of God. But if they are serious, diligent and skilled at what they do, they can be valuable sources of knowledge regarding their field of expertise. A pastor need not fear that he is dishonoring Scripture when he consults them or their writings. Rather, he elevates Scripture by making it the final bar of judgement for all human knowledge – even that knowledge which he reads from unbelievers expert in their fields.