Using and Abusing the Bible
by Rick Shrader
I would think that anyone who values straight talk has a hard time of it during national election years. Now, more than ever, politicians are looking for the right buzz word or the right connection to the latest polling data which will up his/her chances of being elected. Every sentence, even every word, is scrutinized as to whether it will increase or decrease his/her ratings by a percentage point! This year’s buzz word is “change.” It hardly matters what the change is or where it would lead as long as it is change. If it unites people and creates enthusiasm; if it appeals to the right cultural block; if it presents the candidate as visionary and idealistic; in other words, if it just gets votes, then this is where we must go!
Of course, the only sensible reply to change is whether it is good or bad. And this question, considered in a sinful world, becomes even more critical. There is no rut so deep as the supposed need for constant change. In my reading I have collected a few of those priceless quotes from wise men who spoke of the futility of change for change’s sake. Here are just a few:
C.S. Lewis: “When changes in the human mind produce a sufficient disrelish of the old Model and a sufficient hankering for some new one, phenomena to support that new one will obediently turn up. I do not at all mean that these new phenomena are illusory. Nature has all sorts of phenomena in stock and can suit many different tastes.”1
G.K. Chesterton: “In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, ‘Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?’ But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.”2
Charles Spurgeon: “It is all too plainly apparent men are willing to forego the old for the sake of the new. But commonly it is found in theology that that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true.”3
This quote from Spurgeon was written during his important struggle in what he coined The Downgrade Controversy. It is unique because we see clearly today that what is fashionable in the world is usually followed closely by the Church. Michael Aeschlimen, who studied the effect of liberalism on culture, observed, “But the compulsive spirit of innovation, the lust for change and the new, which Arnold and Newman fought in related ways in the educational realm, was a chief effect of the intoxications of scientism, and it has continued to increase in effect in many other areas of modern life.”4 This same thing has happened in the modern liberalism of the American political and religious landscapes of the twentieth century.
As we have begun the twenty-first century, the belief in change for change’s sake in religious matters is again reflecting the culture. This is of far greater concern than politics because Christianity is THE revealed religion from God. It is a body of truth that was set in propositional form by the Alpha and Omega. We ought to expect, therefore, that Christianity in our day, more than any other religion in the world or in history, ought to look inherently like it did two thousand years ago. But today’s Christian leaders don’t have the stomach for it. Our generation is demanding change in the churches and they are getting it wholesale. Is it for the better? Ask Willow Creek’s own internal survey. Of course, it isn’t. And, it isn’t better in our fundamental churches either.
It seems that almost anyone who argues for change in the church uses either Nehemiah as a text from the Old Testament or Jesus’ parable of the new wine in old wine skins from the New Testament. Often they will throw in the observation that Jesus displeased the Pharisees because, unlike them, He ate with publicans and sinners and this is something that they would never do. As Lewis noted, when there is a hankering for change in society, sufficient phenomena will show up to support it. So also when there is a demand for change in the church (by those who have no intention of changing their lives themselves) sufficient chapters and verses will turn up to support it.
The New Wine and Old Wineskins
The account of the wineskins is an interesting picture in the gospels. It seems to have the perfect wording for someone who is advocating doing away with old things and bringing in the new things. It appears in the three synoptic gospels and is always coupled with the similar picture of trying to sew a new piece of cloth onto an old garment. In Mark’s gospel (2:18-22), both are also coupled with the question of the attendants fasting at a wedding while the bridegroom is absent. The contemporary use of these verses seems to be—when God gives a visionary leader a new or fresh vision for change, or when reaching the culture demands that new things be done in the church, these things cannot simply be attached to the traditional way of doing things. The old things must be set aside and the new things must be done separately from the old.
Now, it is true perhaps that if we simply take the statements as truisms and apply them to garments, animal skins and wedding receptions, these observations would be correct. And, if we make general observations about connecting new and old things in life, these same observations would often apply as well. But is this exegesis of the passage or merely using the wording of the passage for our own purposes? By the same method could we not preach the gospel from the poem of Mary and her little lamb? It has all the words we need. Was there no other purpose for Jesus saying things like this than to fill our files full of anecdotes to be used whenever they can bolster our arguments?
Jesus was offering Himself and His kingdom to the Jewish people (this is clearly seen in the preceding analogy to fasting while the bridegroom is present rather than absent). The law is being brought to an end. With the rejection of the King and kingdom, the gospel dispensation is commencing and the law as a rule of life is definitely over. Edersheim noted that “the new wine of the Kingdom [cannot] be confined in the old forms. It would burst those wine-skins.”5 You cannot operate the new wine of the dispensation of grace (with the local church being the primary agency) by keeping the old wine skin of the Mosaic law. Dwight Pentecost wrote, “The parables clearly indicate that Christ did not come to reform an old and worn out system but to introduce something new (cf. Heb. 8:13).”6 This is what the analogy of the wine and wineskins is teaching.
If the parables are used simply to support every new thing that comes along and to do away with every old thing that stands in the way, then the meaning of the passage is missed and only the wording of the passage is being used for someone’s personal agenda. If I flipped through my Bible, trying to prove that suicide is biblical, and came up with: “Judas went and hanged himself . . . . Go thou and do likewise . . . . What thou doest do quickly,” though I have used biblical words, I would not have discovered the biblical teaching about suicide.
The further irony of using this passage to support changes in the local church is that the church age is now 2000 years old and the local church will continue to be God’s plan until the second coming of Christ. The local church now IS the old wine skin, and we are not to discard it until Jesus comes and establishes His kingdom. That is, if we transfer the meaning of this passage to our situation today, rather than supporting changing the church, it supports retaining the church and its doctrines and practices that are now 2000 years old.
Nehemiah’s Building Project
I don’t think I’ve read a book on transitioning from a traditional church to a contemporary church without the author referring to the book of Nehemiah. Usually, the whole book is taken from a series of lessons on Nehemiah that the author has given to his church. Much is made of Nehemiah as a visionary who sees the need in Jerusalem and then goes through a series of wise steps to get the whole project done. The application usually is this: the pastor should pray for his specific vision for change from God; he should share it with a few people in his inner circle; he should then broaden than circle, being careful to indoctrinate new people to his personal vision carefully so they will come on board; he should reveal his vision to the whole congregation only after assurance has been found that the vision will definitely be adopted. If opposition occurs he must try to bring those people into his way of thinking, but if he can’t, he must count the cost of losing those people for the betterment of the whole. This is all done based on Nehemiah’s task of getting the temple in Jerusalem rebuilt.
Of course, we may find principles to live or work by in many passages of Scripture. But we must be careful not to violate the meaning of the text, and also not to be so trivial with the principle that we, again, are just using the wording that we need. Was Nehemiah doing something new that God was showing him? In whatever way he prayed and asked God’s help and made his decision to do what he did, is this a direct parallel for a pastor receiving a unique vision for his ministry (and not necessarily anyone else’s) and then going about to change the local church? Yes, we may see wise principles of leadership but is the book of Nehemiah a blueprint for local church polity? The irony is that Nehemiah was not doing something new, he was rather rebuilding something old! He was reestablishing proper Mosaic worship, something that had been destroyed because of Israel’s disobedience for the last 500 years. We would do better to begin printing books based on Nehemiah on how to rebuild the traditional churches after they have been destroyed and taken into captivity by new methodology! At least the overall intention of the book would be better served.
Eating With Publicans and Sinners
When Levi decided to follow Jesus, he invited the Lord and many of his own friends to a supper at his house. Among these “Publicans and sinners” Jesus carried on a conversation that resulted in Him saying, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17). A common excuse for changing to a contemporary mode of local church polity is that Jesus reached out to sinners such as these. Since the Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with the sinners, they are made to represent the church members who object and (supposedly) don’t like these “unchurched” sinners in the church.
But can this passage be made to support such a proposition? First, Jesus usually had to leave most houses He was invited into because He made sinners uncomfortable—a far cry from the contemporary church auditorium. Second, it was the lost tax collectors that heard Him, saw themselves as sinners, repented, and changed their life-style—also a far cry from the contemporary church auditorium. Third, it was the Pharisees, who would not see themselves as sinners and had no intention of changing, that even Jesus did not call to repentance. They were too self-righteous to think they needed to be changed from what they were. Yet these are the kind that seem to be filling today’s churches (where little or no repentance is preached). This story does not condemn believers who changed when they were converted and have remained changed, but rather those who think they can come to Jesus without any change in their lives.
And So . . . .
Though we all have equal access to the infallible Scriptures, none of us are infallible interpreters. We all need to be challenged to see if our conclusions really match the text.