For decades, the motto of countless evangelical churches has been “we teach the Bible and nothing else.” And that’s the biggest myth of evangelicalism.
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The idea behind that sentiment is not only incredibly arrogant (“Our church has the correct interpretation of the Bible”), but it is blindly ignorant. What I mean by that is, whenever someone comes to the Bible, they will read their own experience, culture, and worldview into it.
You may think that you, certainly, are exempt from this and are able to forgo any outdated cultural lens and read it as it is, but my friend, that is the first mistake you can make when reading the Bible. Let me give a few examples.
One of the most common themes in the Bible is that of liberation. Israel from Egypt, then from Assyria and Babylon. Then Jesus from sin and death, although the Jews were hoping for Roman liberation. So, a black slave in the 1800’s would pick up the Bible (assuming they could read), and come to the conclusion that Jesus was on their side, because God fought for the liberation of the oppressed. Meanwhile, their owners read the exact same book and come to the conclusion that owning slaves was okay because Paul tells slaves to honor their masters, etc.
Clearly the slaves would be in the right! You’re probably thinking. Of course the Bible condemns slavery! How could they be so foolish??
Well, where does it condemn slavery? It…doesn’t.
See? You brought your own worldview and plugged it into the Bible, rather than approaching the Bible untainted and reading it as it is. This is just one example, but the more you dig into the study of hermeneutics, the more you find that there is absolutely no raw, pure, unadulterated reading of the Word; we always bring ourselves into it.
I could go on and list examples of how you bring your own presuppositions into the Bible and don’t believe what it says, but what you’ve been told it says, but I don’t want to get too myopic. I’ll just say that for whatever view you hold on an issue (abortion, politics, hell, Calvinism, et al.), I could build an opposite argument from scripture and defend it. The point is, doing theology this way is exhausting and gets us nowhere.
In my opinion, this is one of the foundational ailments of evangelical culture. This idea that anyone can read the Bible and get one true, accurate understanding of it is pretty absurd, frankly. This is why labels are actually helpful. One church identifies as Eastern Orthodox because they align with the world of believers who read the Bible this way. Baptists read the Bible that way. And so on.
The effort to establish “_____ Bible Church” is a self-defeating effort (Most churches that call themselves a ‘Bible Church’ are founded on this idea of being informed by the Bible and nothing else). It’s almost the same as building a house on quicksand. Humans need tradition, because it teaches us how to read the Bible. To claim that we are sola Scriptura without any tradition whatsoever is ludicrous. Think about it: if you were raised in the American church, there’s a good chance you could rattle off a quick rendition of the gospel in four acts: “God is holy. We are sinful and deserve separation from Him. Jesus died in our place. Believe in Him and go to heaven.” While this presentation isn’t necessarily untrue, it is not found anywhere that clean-cut in scripture. What tends to happen is that we read that structure we’ve been taught into the Bible, rather than seeing what’s actually on the page before us.
An example: Yesterday I was teaching on the demon possessed man in Mark 5. He gets demons cast out of him and Jesus says, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (v.19). I was thinking about this and realized, the man could only say what he knew:
There was a rabbi named Jesus who had mercy on me.
He had authority over the demons in me and sent them out of me into some pigs.
And that’s it.
If we (evangelicals) heard that as an entire gospel presentation, we would stand up and shout, “Yah, but what about hell?? What about heaven?? What about the death and resurrection?? What if he didn’t accept Jesus into his heart, speak in tongues, or get baptized??”
Jesus didn’t give the man gospel tracts with the formula for 4 Steps to Salvation, nor did He lecture him on sound doctrine for when he goes out to share the good news. He basically just said, ‘tell your story’ and that was enough.
Do you see how much we’ve read into our understanding of the Bible?
What about Zacchaeus who was saved because he gave away half his money?
What about the rich young ruler in the previous chapter who was offered salvation if he gave away all of his money?
I’ve heard so many sermons that tried to cram these stories into the presupposed model of salvation, rather than just let the stories tell themselves. It seems like all these non-denominational churches have become their own denomination; walk into any non-denom church in America, and 9/10 times, you won’t be surprised by how the service goes and what they teach.
Non-denominational churches, ironically, have become their own denomination.
Even though they claim sola Scriptura, they tend to read the Bible the same way. There is most definitely an evangelical way to read the Bible, and most of us who grew up in this tradition are taught how to read it; we don’t read it as it is. Sadly, our reading often neglects the very Jewish culture in which it was cultivated in favor of a “more educated” western reading. Then we wonder why we get so mixed up by certain passages with heavily Jewish contexts.
Reading the Bible—a 2,000 year old book—is reading a text through a mirror of a mirror of a (slightly warped) window, through another window, through a mirror, etc. There are references we totally miss, metaphors which would have been common, political undertones, and a myriad other things we don’t see as 21st century Americans.
I can’t help but wonder if this lack of structure is what is leading to the slow death of evangelicalism. Since everyone thinks they can accurately read the Bible for themselves, we have a million micro-denominations and are less unified than before. Even if you denounce the theology of the Catholic church, you must admit, they are unified all over the world in a way we are not.
Evangelicalism today has swung toward political power and a pursuit of wealth, fame, and the elevation of celebrity pastors in a way the world hasn’t seen since Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor. Half of us defend these powerful, rich pastors, while the other half denounces their uses of money and power—all using Bible verses.
Are you starting to see how foolish it is to say, I just read the Bible and am immune to reading it through a specific lens…?
Lastly, I’ll add that white people are especially guilty of this. We are the most prone to thinking that our ethnicity, race, experience, and nationality don’t affect our understanding of the world. If someone suggests that one of our views is due to our whiteness, we see it as a challenge to our objectivity. Yet we don’t hesitate to think thoughts like, “He thinks that way because of his black culture…” or, “She just likes that because she’s Asian…” But of course, white is right.
This is a deep-seated pride that comes from thinking that our reading of the world is the right one. Therefore, we also think that ‘when I pick up my Bible and read it, I am reading it correctly, or at least, objectively.’
What’s most important, more than hermeneutics and theological nitpicks, is relationship with Christ. Our understanding of the Word can move and evolve as long as it remains centered around our relationship with the living, dynamic Son of Man.