Jonathan David Faulkner
The irony here is that Christians are supposed to be a light to the world and are supposed to influence culture…
We live in a modern and now post-modern world. The idea that man can attain the highest precipice of knowledge is giving way to the idea that man can know nothing in certainty at all. We are moving from a pluralistic society to one driven by primal emotionalism, so even post-modernism is breaking down. Now groups share their tribal beliefs and gravitate towards others who share those same tribal beliefs. Each thinking their tribe has all the answers to cure what ills us and the one who screams loudest gets heard while each claims to stand up for their own “Little-guy.”
This is a bleak picture, but should it surprise us in the Church and as Church leaders? After all, if we study the trajectory of the Church in the United States do we not see the same trends starting from the moment we set up the first church in the colonies to today with all those above forces still at work today. As my friend and fellow Historian Cameron Brock once said: “We are swimming in the soup the Church created.” Now, before you call me a cynic, go and study the history of theological debate in our country. From Puritan separatists to Fundamentalism, to the Internecene controversies of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries you will see Modernism devolve into Post-Modernism with the advent of the German Higher Textual Criticism Method to Tribalism with the rise of Fundamentalism and Reconstructionism to primal-emotionalism evidenced in second, third and fourth wave Pentecostalism, the Health and Wealth Gospel and the continued revialistic traditions started in the 1730’s. Go and read Charles Hodge’s arguments in favor sect and schism or Rev. Thornton’s arguments in favor of Slavery and Segregation. You will quickly see that the world learned all this and more from us. If Church tech is 20 years behind the culture, the church is about 100 years ahead of the culture as cultural Christianity (I say cultural because the number of actual Bible believing Christians is growing at the same rate as secularism, See Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God”) shrinks and cultural secularism grows (as does religious curiosity) these trends affected the Church after 1955 and now here they are in the culture. Even the culture’s look towards Politics as savior is something that secular tribes learned from watching the Church produce the “Moral Majority” and the Religious Right which has descended into all sorts of delirium and delusion in recent years, place its hope in politics rather than God, leaving the sheep in the pews to be devoured by the wolves.
Whether we like it or not, we are to blame for the mess our culture is in. As one of my professors once said: “As the Church goes, so goes the culture.” Now, my secular readers may say: “You’re giving yourself a little too much credit here aren’t you?” And to them I would say, go back and study what I have outlined above, there’s more research than ever on this topic, some of which I have written. Now, this does not hold 100% true for 100% of churches 100% of the time, but there is an over arching narrative that has contributed to our ever-shrinking influence over our culture in America.
The solutions then have been to 1. clamor for more influence and power 2. Slip into auhindered legalism that makes us Pharisees or go the opposite direction and embrace Antinomialism, rejecting both the teachings of Jesus and the Bible from whence they come or 3. reform back to a biblically informed and biblically based Christianity which holds to biblical authority but does so with love and grace and from a place of transformation where we are actually “In Christ” and seeking to be transformed by Him through the Holy Spirit.
The current spokespeople for Christianity, as I have commented in the past, have chosen this first option so that the Mouth of the Body of Christ is rejecting the brain and allows the masses to be fed to the wolves. In their clamor for power they have embraced ideologies and politicians who scripture would likely, in fact- label as “Antichrists.” They have mastered the art of hermeneutical gymnastics to make biblical texts mean things they were never meant to say and have never said in history. They are Pharisees, imposing the laws of man and employing the strategies of men to advance not Christ, but a political agenda that holds morals over the secular world that the secular world does not want. If we cannot legislate morality, then why are we trying?
The second group are the John MacArthur’s and Rob Bell’s of the world, two different ends of the same spectrum. MacArthur sees the higher critical method as a threat to biblical authority and so has rejected the hermeneutical spiral altogether. He has chosen a legalistic “Plain reading” of the text that comes from the English and though he is one of the most learned men of his age, he has rejected that education in favor of a legalistic interpretation and then doubled down on it. He believes in the authority of scripture, but that authority these days seems to be limited to the “English Text” and disregard any type of cultural or historical backgrounds that might accompany and in fact aid our interpretation. Rob Bell on the other hand has let the Higher Critical Method do exactly what Charles Hodge and now John MacArthur fear it would do. He has used it to stand over the text and dictate to the text what the text does and does not say rather than letting the text stand over him and dictate to him what He should believe and using the whole council of Church History to help him understand how that applies to his life now. The ironic thing here is John MacArthur is doing the same thing, bringing a cultural presupposition that scripture in context would not recognize, nor would its writers, and placing that ideology in the text or into two or three verses in the text while ignoring a large swath of biblical council.
The irony here is that Christians are supposed to be a light to the world and are supposed to influence culture, we should, if we are able, participate in the government of men, so long as we do so first and foremost as citizen’s of God’s kingdom. The laws and morals and teachings of God’s kingdom should inform how we interact in those spheres, they are not weapons meant to destroy our opponents in secular arenas, but bread and wine for those who are starving to literal death and who need Jesus who made them and loves them, bread that to a secular world will at first taste bitter until they see demonstrated for them their life giving properties as we who partake of them daily are transformed by the Word who dwells inside us as the Holy Spirit.
It is also true that methods of higher criticism can be extremely helpful, especially in exegeting difficult passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12-15 or the entire book of Romans. But when we approach text criticism assuming our superiority over that of the superiority of the text we are always going to fail at biblical interpretation. We also have to remember that the modern chapter verse structure was not the way the writers intended scripture to be read. That is a helpful way of breaking up the text until you start pulling texts out of their context and dealing with them as if they are singular units unrelated to the whole from which they were taken. Every Christian can be a biblical theologian, meaning we can all consider the whole and full council of scripture. Biblical Theology and broader hermeneutics require us to orient ourselves not just on one text in a vacuum, but within its surrounding texts, it’s chapter, it’s book, its testament, it’s place in all of scripture Old and New Testament. When we boil scripture down to morals or a book outlining good things to do, we make it about ourselves, but the Bible is not about us, it is about Christ and all that He has done. The Old Testament is pregnant with it, the new testament explains and expounds upon it. But scripture was also written into a specific context, for specific reasons, it’s writers responding to specific issues, some of which we still have issues with today, such as the Elitism in John’s community and the elitism of modern pietistic, certain charismatic and fundamentalist movements and even in some forms of modern Christian Conservativism and Liberalism (1 John 1:6-7).
We, as man, do not get to decide what an almighty God may or may not have said and unless it is expressly said to Israel or has found complete fulfillment in Christ, such as the Ceremonial and Sacrificial Laws, then it is still binding on us today. In our modern individualistic and consumeristic mindsets, we tend to look for the parts of scripture that “suit me” and throw out the rest. Like Benjamin Franklin cutting out all the things he did not think Jesus actually said or did, we want to dictate to the text what it should and shouldn’t say and especially what it should or should not tell us to do. It is a reality though that if we actually went to scripture and read it and let it stand over us many of us would either have to stop calling ourselves Christians or repent of a histories worth of sins that the American Church has openly and intentionally engaged in.. We would find things like Dominionism and the Discovery Doctrine are in fact sinful because they deny the image of God in His creation and destroy human flourishing and dignity through stark and totalitarian injustice. These are not “Liberal” terms mind you, they are inherent in God’s original creation, back to Genesis 1 and 2 where we were made in the “Image of God” and told to cover the Earth with “Image bearers” as we were “Fruitful and Multiplied” (See Genesis 1-3). That means that all humans, by nature of being made in the image of God, have dignity and worthy of respect. Even though the fall has happened, the image of God is still there and through Christ we are transformed back into what is already inherent in us. The Transformation of Christ is not as much a recreation but a restoration in the manner which is described in Revelation 20.
We have all read Genesis 1-3 and we know there are a myriad of interpretations out there and we tend to chose which one fits us best, but when outside opinion and individual preference reigns, unity is destroyed. Individual opinion must be brought in and held against the entire council of scripture and church History and if it does not hold up to these two, the Special Revelation of Christ in His Word and the General Revelation of God in History then the opinion should be relegated to the ash-heap of history, not a new denomination formed around the opinion that both Scripture and Church History reject. But unlike Christ, we prefer to please ourselves (Romans 15:3) and go after “every wind of doctrine”” (Eph 4:10) that “tell them what their itching ears are longing to hear” (2 Tim 4:3). When we try to make scripture about us and our preferences, when we approach scripture with the hopes that it will justify our own egocentricism and elitism or theological position we are apt to twist scripture to say something it does not say, nor has it ever said.
Yet, if we really believed in the Authority of Scripture, not Solo Scriptura mind you, but actual Authority that these are God’s words written down to testify to Christ and to show us how to do the same. If we actually believed scripture was authoritative we would let it stand over us and inform us about God and His works and show us the way to live instead of looking to culture and recent inventions of history such as revivalism that appeal to emotionalism before and over scriptural authority, or an attractional model of Church that looks good on Paper, but as Josh Wilson discussed in his book “The Gospel Driven Church” rely not on scripture but on tricks and gimmicks over and above scripture, so much so in both cases that scripture is often lost completely. If we are doing good Cultural Exegesis we know that these are placebos, they do not work, they do not proclaim Christ, they do not make disciples, all they do is glitter the way to eternity in outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Luke 13:52, Matthew 13:42).
Pastors, believing the authority of the Word of God must start with us. And if we truly confess the word is authoritative, we need to expend every orthodox resource available to learn about the Word and its surrounding and varying contexts. If we stand up in our pulpits on Sunday’s and read a text and then spend 15-20 minutes telling fanciful stories or trying to sanitize the text we will only lead the people entrusted to us astray and then we get to stand before God and explain why our congregations are lost. There are two reasons why James says that those who aspire to teach will be judged more harshly (James 3:1), we will be judged harshly by men and we will be held to a higher standard before the throne of God, we who served as Under Shepherds of Christ. May it be said of us that we led them to The Word, that is, to Christ who is the Living Word (John 1:1-15) and not to the wolves as too many of us have today. We should be as careful handling scripture because of its authority as St. Francis tells us to be when handling the actual bible itself: “If you see that the Holy Scriptures have fallen from the alter you should walk to them and put them back neatly and in order on the Altar out of respect for their being the very word of God” (The rule of 1221). We should be careful exegetes, letting scripture stand over us and dictate to us because we have reverence for the text and more importantly for the one whose authority is behind the text, Jesus Christ (Rev 22:21). But we also must avoid legalism in our applications of the text, pursuing the life-giving nature of the living word and not the death-giving nature of the dead, man-made, letter. That means we need to approach the Holy Word of God in communion, through prayer, with the Paraclete who leads us into all truth, the Holy Spirit who makes our divine Union with the Word (Jesus) possible in the first place. If we seek to interpret the Word of God without the third person of the trinity, we are no better than the Pharisees who enforce their own interpretations of the law rather than God’s intentions behind the Law. The Holy Spirit is meant to lead us into all truth, and they will, if we let them. We need to remember that the scriptures show us not a list of morals, but how to live a life that points to, testifies to and bears witness to Christ, the one whom the entirety of scripture are about. Not how to build better humans, or be the ‘best version of ourselves’ but how to bring glory to the Triune God.
To the Lay Person, the scriptures are a gift to you, as they also are to the pastor, You are meant to be in them daily, reading them, discussing them with other believers, hearing them taught and expounded upon. The early church did this daily and for many of us it has become a burden to even do this once a week. If we read scripture as a self-help book, we are going to find it sorely lacking in self-help material. Given that it is not about us, it s about Christ and carries behind it the authority of Christ. Scriptures job is not to make you a more moral person, it is meant to show you Christ, point you to Him and then guide you, through the Holy Spirit, into deeper communion with Him that leads you to a life overflowing with Joy and love (John 13-17) and so by default you testify to, bring glory to and bear witness to Christ and what He has done. This is the singular calling of the Church that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 4:1-6. It is for this calling that we should be “eager to maintain the bond of peace and the spirit of unity” (4:3) and that we are “One Body, with One Spirit.” Living by scripture and in the Holy Spirit should make us naturally care for one another and for those who are not part of the church. It was this outward care that was evidence of an inward reality that caused the incredible expansion of the Church in the first century and it is precisely this kind of fellowship, deep and intimate, “having everything in common” (Acts 2:44) that the cultural exegetes are telling us unbelievers in our nation are looking for, the family atmosphere that is described in Acts, but is sorely lacking in much of the church in the United States. We should grieve when gangs and secular clubs are better at living in community than Christians are, and in many cases, they are. Read Francis Chan’s book Letters to the Church” for some stories that should shock us and make us mourn. I have been in secular communities that were better at loving one another than the church has been in history, one of which, the All-Ohio State Fair Youth Choir I still have friends who I am regular contact with. One even sang at our wedding and two wrote for 10:31 Life Ministries during college. It baffles me that God has laid out what His expectations are and we who claim His name prefer to replace those with our own preferences and our own authority rather than God’s. This is rebellion against Him, and it is rebellion we will answer for one day.
One of the underlying issues here is that most people have a relationship with the church as institutions and not a relationship with Christ which includes them in the organic body of Christ. If you read scripture outside of a relationship with Christ, you end up like one of my Atheist friends from my choir days who read the bible daily because it had “good morals.” The requires you to reject a large swath of what scripture says about the one who gave it to us, Christ, the Son of God and second member of the Trinity. We should make sure we actually have a relationship with Christ before we apply scripture to our lives and apply through the paradigm of one who is in mystical, divine union with Christ. Just as we come under Christ then we should come under the authority of His word and let it stand over us to teach us how to live as Christ.
If we believed in the authority of scripture, what would happen? Christian, stop praying for revival and start living as one revived. Lay down your moralism and start living as one transformed, give up your dead-letter legalism for the life-giving words of the living God. Stop claiming the name of Christ and actually have a relationship with Him and above all else: “Let the word of God dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossian 3:16).
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.