Back in high school, I participating in our church’s youth choir summer mission trip. Sensing that the kids (and the adults) couldn’t possibly endure much more time trapped on a tour bus that smelled of farts and dirty fungus feet, we took a pit stop in Louisville, KY at Southern Seminary to fumigate, delouse and disinfect. Our church’s Music Minister was a Southern graduate, and was going to take us for a stroll around the campus to work off some pent-up energy. After we hurried off the bus, we wound up milling around for a few minutes at some sort of reception area on campus. Some of us, who were overjoyed at our release from tour bus bondage, starting throwing a dance party in the lobby. That’s when I noticed it: The beady menacing eyes, scowling frown and folded arms of the young Southern Seminary employee working behind the welcome desk. The smoke coming out his ears indicated that a conniption fit was forthcoming. In no time flat, he stomped his feet over to where our dance of joy was taking place and condescendingly informed us: “There is no dancing permitted at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary! I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
I don’t remember exactly what occurred after that, but I do remember that the matter was serious enough that the adult chaperones intervened. I’m also sure that we didn’t dance again while our feet were planted on the seminary grounds. And somewhere the welcome desk guy is now pastoring the church from Footloose.
Recounting this story, I am reminded of how confusing being a young Christian actually was. I’m pretty sure that we had no clue what a seminary was or why the seminary staff would get so upset about dancing. From that point on, there was so much grey area in Christianity to debate and work through. When I hung out with my church friends, we didn’t spend a ton of time discussing the Gospel, because we all agreed about how you got saved. But we’d spend hours talking about how the older generation frowned upon guys with long hair and earrings who listened to prog rock and industrial music. We agreed that we were saved by God’s grace, but we were confused about how to follow Him as His disciple. Our adult mentors weren’t a ton of help in answering our questions: One would tell us rock music was unquestionably evil and Satanically inspired … Another would show off his KISS record collection.
A few years later, I remember visiting a church friend who was attending the Christian college Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. It was like going on safari to the surface of Mars. Liberty was less mega-campus and more of a bunch of ramshackle office trailers back then. My friend informed me about the now famous demerit policy at the school, where your behavior was held accountable by your peers. I remember how he was deathly afraid of stepping foot on the grounds of the local Lynchburg movie theatre, because he seriously believed that Liberty University had spies stationed at the theatre to ensure that students weren’t watching R-rated movies. As he recounted all his restrictions, I remember thinking how paranoid that he’s become … So concerned about illicitly holding hands with girls. But – most of all – we couldn’t understand how different (and more restrictive) this version of Christian life was from our local church back in Richmond, VA. How could living for Christ mean two different lifestyles in two different places?
Even for mature Christians, the grey areas of Scripture still remain a confusing place. As a Mid-western pastor, I frustratingly find myself answering more questions from people about worship style than major theological issues. There are simply places where we would like further clarity from God about how to walk with Christ:
- Can I get a tattoo?
- Can I dance in worship? Or can I dance at all?
- Should I homeschool my kids or send them to public school?
- Can I get a nose ring and my tongue pierced?
- Can I have one glass of wine with dinner?
- Should I use my free time for missions or rest? Should I even take a vacation?
- Can my kids celebrate Halloween?
- Can I use an electric guitar in worship?
- Should I go see a PG-13 rated movie?
- What translation of the Bible should I use?
And the reason that most believers ask these questions is their earnest desire to seek the will of God for their life. We simply desire to love and honor Christ. But you start to consider these issues and you wind up in a massive theological shouting match with your Christian brothers and sisters. You could attend two different churches within the same denomination within the same town and experience two different church cultures and levels of social acceptability.
So how do we best navigate the deadly Scylla and Charydis of these grey areas of Biblical interpretation?
One approach that some Christians take to solve the quandary of Biblical grey areas is legalism. Overall, the approach of legalism is to attempt to take the grey areas and turn them into clearcut black and white zones. Legalism delights in filling in the blanks of the moral code of the Bible with numerous stricter regulations. Biblical prohibitions against drunkenness turn into more rules about avoidance of even using alcohol to cook food. Biblical commendations for women to dress modestly turn into more rules about floor length skirts and no pants on women. Legalists always want more rules and less grace. They also use fear, guilt and gossip as crafty tools to keep other believers in line with the rules. There is also an air of condescention: “Thank God that I’m a good person that obeys all the right rules and I’m not like those sinful people outside our church!” Reminds me of the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:9-14. There is an unrighteous comfort found in safely obeying the rules while furrowing your brow at all the other “sinners” outside of the church grounds. But the danger of legalism lies in attempting to justify “thus sayeth the Lord” when the Lord clearly did not “sayeth” in any form or fashion. And the heavy burdens of legalism become deadly when the man-made rules become the litmus test for obtaining or maintaining salvation.
On the other end of the spectrum, other Christians approach grey areas with antinomianism. That’s a big theological word meaning “there is no law.” You probably have never heard this label, but the practice is pretty common in Christian culture. The essence of antinomianism is this: If God forgives all of our sins, then why bother to obey God or stop sinning? If God is so gracious, then God will unwaveringly love me even when I party like a rock star, shack up with my girlfriend and sleep in on Sundays. While one of the founding principles of the Protestant movement is that believers are saved by their faith alone, antinomianism takes this principle to extremes by arguing that believers don’t need to worry about their works, morals and behavior at all. Only faith in Christ is important. God is love and love is God and love is all you need. Antinomianism tells us that not only are there no grey areas … There are no boundaries whatsoever. Of course, antinomianism runs completely counter to the foundational New Testament truth that the believer’s spiritual transformation produces obedience and spiritual fruit (Ezekiel 36:26; John 14:15; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 5:22; James 1-2; 1 John 5:3).
When it comes to interpreting the grey matters of Scripture, the central issue is simply how we read the Bible. We don’t approach the Bible as a humble student eager to learn or as a menial servant seeking instructions from his master. We approach the Bible as a prooftext to support our pre-formed positions. When we disagree with the Bible, we don’t allow the Bible to change us … We seek to distort, manipulate or ignore the Bible to hold onto our beliefs with our kung-fu grip. In our sound-byte culture, the Bible often gets reduced into whatever slogan can easily fit into a tweet or Facebook status bar. More Bible readers are asking “What passage do I like?” or “What makes me feel good about myself?” instead of asking “What is God saying to me through this passage?” The optimistic verses about God’s love and the believer’s joy are highlighted and virtually everything referring to wrath, judgment, sin or repentance is ignored. In a pick and choose Bible reading strategy, the Bible becomes our blunt-edged instrument of force … Our means to an end.
In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer states: “God breathed on clay and it became a man; He breathes on men and they become clay.” The voice of the Lord is not to be minimized or ignored … It is meant to correct us, criticize us, train us and scold us (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Bible is meant to be God’s instrument to change our hearts and not vice versa. But I would also add to Tozer’s statement that God can just as easily shatter a hardened pot as He can mold moist and supple clay. One way or another, God will have His way regardless of our most stubborn objections and sophisticated argumentation. Our model for reading Scripture should be the famished sojourner who longs for more and more of the broad banquet table of God’s Word … Not the petulant toddler who clamps his lips shut and refuses a mock airplane ride full of solid food. If we have truly tasted and seen the goodness of God, our unceasing hunger should be an increasing supply of His Word and less of the forgeries and mirages of our heart.
Herein lies the real problem with the interpretation of the grey areas of the Bible: Many simply cannot bear the investigation, refinement and transformation that the voice of God produces. Legalists deflect the Bible by arguing that somebody else needs the burning light of investigation … And the antinomians slough the Bible off by arguing that nobody needs transformation. In the end, both sides have the same objection: “I don’t need God to tell me what to do.” Many Christians want protective armor against the double-edged sword of Scripture … Others simply desire to dull the blade into impotence (Hebrews 4:12).
Truly experiencing God through the Bible means that we let go of the safety of legalism, public policy bullet points and the comfort zone of the church walls. On the other side of the equation, it also means God desires to use His word for our spiritual transformation – not stagnation. It’s no better to add your own personal preferences to God’s Word than simply ignore it. Either way, the sin is merely a desire to listen our prideful hearts instead of humbling ourselves in submission to the King. So we must allow God to give us ears to hear His voice speaking to us … And then to pursue Him in love, submission and obedience.
Yes, plenty of people are reading the Bible … But who is allowing the Bible to read them?
Here’s the middle path to approaching the grey areas of Scripture: Learn to lovingly submit where God has spoken … And experience joy and freedom where God has not spoken. And become wise enough to realize that most of the time we don’t need to speak at all.
Over the next few months, I’ll be blogging about the grey matters of Scripture. I’ve already posted the first blog here. Buckle up … it should be fun.