The Tragic Demise of the Functional Authority of Scripture1
Each week I join Michael Patton, Tim Kimberley, and J. J. Seid for a podcast that we call Theology Unplugged. It is broadcast each Saturday on Bott Radio at 1:00 p.m. A couple of weeks ago we each took turns in identifying what we believe is the greatest problem in the life of the local church today. Continue reading . . .
Each week I join Michael Patton, Tim Kimberley, and J. J. Seid for a podcast that we call Theology Unplugged. It is broadcast each Saturday on Bott Radio at 1:00 p.m. A couple of weeks ago we each took turns in identifying what we believe is the greatest problem in the life of the local church today. I didn’t hesitate to identify what I believe is the greatest problem, or perhaps we might say the greatest threat to the life and health of the body of Christ. I called it our loss of the functional authority of Scripture.
Most who self-identify as Christians affirm the “authority” of the Bible. But how many mean it? How many understand “authority” to mean that when the Bible says that “A” is true we are morally bound to believe it? Do those who self-identify as Christians mean that when the Bible says that activity “B” is sinful we are morally bound to avoid it?
The “functional” authority of the Bible means that the Scriptures actually function or exert a morally binding obligation on us to believe what it says and to do what it commands. Irrespective of the latest public opinion poll, and without regard to what we think “should” be true or false or good or evil, the Bible functions to inform us regarding what our minds must embrace and what our wills must choose. Personal preference is irrelevant. Majority rule doesn’t rule. The Bible does.
So, for example, when people who verbally affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture proceed to say that conscious faith in Jesus Christ is not necessary for salvation, the Scriptures are not functioning authoritatively for them. When they insist that we should yield to the cultural trajectory that affirms same-sex marriage, the Scriptures are not functioning authoritatively for them. When they argue that it only seems fair and just and kind and loving that God should ultimately save everyone, the Scriptures are not functioning authoritatively for them.
Nowhere is this better seen than in the shocking statistics of a recent Gallup poll. In an article released on the website of the Gospel Coalition (“Why are Behaviors the Bible Condemns Considered ‘Morally Acceptable’ by Christians?” May 29, 2015), Joe Carter cites a disturbing trend among those who call themselves Christians. The poll tracked changes in the belief of “Christians” over the last fifteen years.
Here is just a small sampling of what was discovered.
Sex between an unmarried man and woman is considered morally permissible by 68% of those polled. That has increased 15% from 2001 to 2015.
Sex between people of the same gender is now approved by 63% of those who say they are Christians. This is an increase of 23% over the same time span.
Having a baby outside of marriage is now considered morally acceptable by 61% of those polled. Medical research using stem-cells obtained from human embryos is approved by 64%. And now 45% of professing “Christians” approve of abortion.
What does it say about the so-called “authority” of the Bible when such a large percentage of “Christians” either approve behavior explicitly prohibited by Scripture or condemn behavior explicitly commanded by it?
Carter cites several reasons why Christians are rejecting biblical norms:
“Some are merely ignorant about what the Bible teaches while others are clearly in rebellion and willing to pervert or reject God’s Word to gain popularity with the secular culture. In almost all cases, though, the root issue is an unwillingness of Bible-believing Christians to simply state, ‘You can’t be obedient to Christ and consider behavior he abhors and condemns to be ‘morally acceptable.’
Perhaps it’s because we fear being called ‘legalists’ for standing up for what the Bible teaches. Maybe we believe that people will flee our churches if we require them to adhere to the Bible’s moral commands. Or maybe we are ourselves are too Biblically illiterate to provide counterarguments to the those who claim that the ‘red letters’ in the Bible can be used to justify behaviors that the ‘black letter’ clearly say are sinful.
For whatever reason, we are failing to be faithful to Christ and his call to proclaim the gospel when we allow Scripture to be perverted and rejected by those who claim to be our fellow believers. Given the choice, many people would certainly prefer to be able to endorse fornication, polygamy, and suicide, etc., and still be able to consider themselves ‘good Christian folk.’ But that isn’t an option, and we shouldn’t pretend that the moral requirements of Scripture are optional for Christians. We can’t earn our salvation by adhering to God’s moral commands; salvation comes only from the blood of Christ. But we bring down his wrath upon our ourselves when we call evil good and good evil, and when we put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20).”
One thing is unmistakable and inescapable. The Bible has for many people ceased to function (assuming it ever did) as the final moral authority over their behavior and the ultimate theological standard governing their beliefs.
Simply put, for the Christian it doesn’t matter what you like or dislike. It doesn’t matter what feels good or bad. Weight must not be given to what strikes you as fair or unjust. It doesn’t matter whether your feel comfortable or ill at ease. It doesn’t matter what your neighbor or your employer or your parents believe. It doesn’t matter what the majority of people in the U.S. say is true or false, good or bad.
The only thing that matters is the voice of God speaking to us in Scripture. What matters, then, is whether or not you and I will believe it and adjust our theology and our conduct to conform to its teachings. If you choose not to do so, please desist from the empty and hypocritical affirmation that you believe the Bible is authoritative.
Some reject this emphasis on the authority of the Bible out of fear that it would impose illicit restrictions on the individual’s personal autonomy. But this concern is based on the notion that freedom is fundamentally “from” the principles and standards of God’s Word. Genuine freedom, on the other hand, is freedom “to” obey God as his image-bearers.
Freedom is not inconsistent with the functional authority of the Bible. We are only truly free when our minds and hearts are happily conformed to the will of our Creator. Although it initially seems counter-intuitive, submission to the functional authority of Scripture is eminently liberating. There is no more egregious and damaging enslavement than bondage to one’s own passions and preferences, or perhaps to the ever-changing winds of public opinion. A more biblical approach, notes J. I. Packer,
“sees freedom as the inner state of all who are fulfilling the potential of their own created nature by worshiping and serving their Savior-God from the heart. Their freedom is freedom not to do wrong, but to do right; not to break the moral law, but to keep it; not to forget God, but to cleave to him every moment, in every endeavor and relationship; not to abuse and exploit others, but to lay down one’s life for them” (Truth and Power, 23).
Everyone submits to authority, either that of their own mind and desires, the dictates of someone else, or that of God’s loving and revealed will. Thus the issue before us isn’t authority or anarchy, but to whose authority we will yield our lives.