(The articles in this series were originally written for publication in the local newspaper of the town in which I pastor.)
So far in this series, I’ve argued that a church wishes to align with God’s priorities will have two characteristics: a commitment to follow the Bible as an absolute authority, and (following from the first) a preaching and teaching ministry that is characterized by careful and accurate explanation of the meaning of the Bible. Our third commitment of a sound church will take this a step further.
One common concern that I hear, when I tell people that my authority is the Bible, is this: how can the Bible be the authority, when people can make it mean just about anything they want it to mean? Here’s the reality: I’m sympathetic with this concern. I’ve heard many, many sermons preached in which the pastor takes a snippet of this passage, a phrase of that one, and stirs them together to say whatever it is he wanted to say in the first place, with little regard for the actually meaning of the text. There’s a joke about pastors: they have a sermon to preach, and now they just need to find a text to preach it from. I’d chuckle, if this weren’t so serious.
But is this how it has to be? Is it, as so many like to say, a situation in which you simply have your interpretation and I have mine, and no progress can be made? I’m convinced that the answer to this is no.
Let’s be clear: the Bible isn’t always easy to understand. In fact, Peter himself tells us this! Speaking of Paul’s writings, Peter says, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). If a very apostle confesses that the Bible isn’t always simple, we should not always expect it to be easy for us!
That said, notice that Peter doesn’t give up hope of understanding the Bible rightly, for he talks about people who “twist” Scripture. To accuse a person of “twisting” Scripture, we must accept the possibility of an “untwisted” understanding of it.
So how might we arrive at an untwisted understanding of the Bible? The most important factor here is context. I think most of us have a good understanding of this: it’s simply never fair to a person to take his words out of context, because without a context, words can be made to mean almost anything. But within a context, we recognize that there are limits on what a statement can mean.
What this means for a church is this: a church that takes the Bible seriously must be committed to showing that its interpretation of Scripture is in line with the context of the Bible. What that looks like, more specifically, I’ll address next week.
Additional note: the ideas I mention here I elaborated on in a session at this year’s Conference on the Church for God’s Glory.
About Michael Riley
Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.