Biblical Authority

Biblical Authority

 [Note, this one also is for my Presbyterian sisters and brothers]

This past week, I wrote an article for this blog that focused on churches that are choosing to separate themselves from the PC(USA). I am pleased that it scored more hits than any other blog post I have written (currently over 250 hits in half a week) and most comments were very positive. I always seek discussion from these blogs, even if they are objections because I love to see people considering an issue together. The most common objection I read was from those who object to being in communion with others with a differing view on biblical authority.

[Please note that I use a pretty broad brush when I refer to “conservatives”, “moderates”, and “liberals,” and I acknowledge in advance that the reader might identify with one of these tags and feel my characterizations don’t completely fit them. This may encourage another later discussion, but I write from personal experience, and from what I have read, and feel these tags fit with most.]

Conservatives, moderates, and liberals approach the Bible in different ways. The conservatives feel that many moderates and liberals simply ignore the parts of the Bible that condemn homosexuality and argue their case from their personal experience.

I have heard debates in which a conservative has asked something like, “How can you ignore the passages in Leviticus and Romans on homosexuality?” The response is, “But how can you deny that Joe (or Sue) is an honest and faithful Christian and is as gifted to serve as we are?” The conservatives probably walk away thinking, “These folks only follow the Bible when it is convenient to them (if at all).” We can’t simply ignore passages that run counter to what we think is right.

I had the honor of being in (the former president of Austin Seminary) Jack Stott’s Christian ethics class. He opened the class by saying, “The Bible is the charter document of the Church.” I always believed that this best describes what the Bible is for us.

So, does that mean that we need to use every passage in the Bible as our 21st century Church’s literal rule book? I don’t think so. The Bible is a library of books, written by many writers, over centuries in many different situations. Presbyterians believe that these writers (and editors, compliers, and translators, for that matter) were and are inspired by God. It’s what makes the Bible the book like no other. But we also believe that the Bible is like a mountain range with different passages more clearly reflecting God’s word and will to us than others. Some directions are eternal and some are temporal. We all believe this. I doubt anyone would find the descriptions and measurements of the objects in the temple as inspiring as the Sermon on the Mount. We certainly don’t build modern churches on ancient specifications.

To get back to the matter at hand, liberals and some moderates believe that homosexuals should be equally able to serve in the Church with heterosexuals. They often fail to point to back to the Bible in their arguments. They could contend that they believe that the words of Christ (and Paul) urging us to be graceful to one another and not to judge one another take precedence over both Moses’ and Paul’s particular instructions on homosexuals.

Most Christians do disagree with Moses and Paul on other issues. Even the most conservative among us do not follow Moses’ prescriptions on the wearing of clothes (banning polyester) or the eating of shellfish (especially not here in New Orleans). And most Christians do not follow Paul’s prescriptions on how women were to dress or conduct themselves in a sanctuary.

Does this mean these men were wrong? No, not in their time. For Moses, it was important for the Hebrew people to have many children and for them to live to adulthood (not as much an issue today) in order for them to be fruitful and multiply. Paul was dealing with churches in which some women were causing problems by speaking up. There are also plenty stories in the Bible about female leaders in the early church, Paul mentions Pheobe, for one (Rom. 16). It is very possible that Moses and Paul were speaking God’s Word on some issues for their time, but it was never intended to be God’s instruction to God’s people for all time.

I don’t know how to answer the question, “Did God intended for those directions to be followed in the 21st century?” How can we know the answer? We need to be in continued discussion and prayer and not simply walk away from one another because we haven’t been able to reach consensus in recent years. And we have to treat all parties with grace and speak the truth in love.

Christians who think that homosexuals should be treated with grace are not necessarily discounting biblical authority. Indeed, even when they aren’t saying it, they might be using the Bible as the very source for their argument.

As I wrote in the previous blog, this is not an issue that should cause us to divorce from one another. The honest truth is that even within the Reformed Tradition, there has been a disagreement over the interpretation of Scripture that has gone back since its inception. Nevertheless, we are stronger together, in dialogue, in work, in prayer, in mission, and in worship than we are apart.

It does not weaken us to have different congregations with different understandings of biblical authority. Let’s continue to rally around our charter document, discuss and debate how God is guiding us through it in the 21st century, and follow Christ’s command to love one another (which never meant being duplicates of one another). And let us share Christian hope in our world which needs the Good News of Jesus Christ as never before.

What do you think?

Until next time,



4 thoughts on “Biblical Authority

  1. Interesting approach, Tom. I heard a lot of what I wrote in response to your prior post in your “conservative” which you summarized fairly well. But I am left with some questions.

    Why do you not accept what progressives say about why they believe something if there is no evidence to the contrary? I also criticized you for not accepting conservatives’ statements that it was Biblical authority, not homosexuality which was the main issue.

    I recognize that we need to interpret Scripture, but I think you agree that interpretation is not the same as reading a passage out of Scripture entirely?

    And if we are to read a passage out, how do we decide, within the four corners of Scripture itself, which ones to read out? That is, how do we avoid allowing our subjective views on a subject, or current cultural values, influence the decision to read something out? And if we go beyond Scripture itself, how we can we still view Scripture as our supreme authority as has been affirmed by Protestants since Luther? That is, if we have to consult something else to decide an issue, that something else must be viewed as superior to Scripture, must it not?

    Seeing Scripture as authority on matters of faith and practice does not guaranty total agreement, but at least there is a framework to discuss disagreements. But while both progressives and conservatives may claim to be applying Scripture, the approaches are so different, are they not, that there is no way to narrow or resolve the differences in conclusions?

    I might agree that those parts of the Law which are addressed specifically to Jews within Israel are not applicable to gentile Christians living in a secular country, but I have authority for that in Acts 15, and elsewhere, do I not? Is it not much more difficult to justify totally reading something out which fits within the entire narrative of the Bible, starting with the order of creation in Genesis (which is referenced by Paul in Romans 1), going through Torah, being reaffirmed in the Epistles, and in the absence of any part of Scripture having something positive to say about homoerotic conduct?

    And when interpreting Scripture, should we not begin with the universal rules of interpreting historical documents, laws, contracts, etc. under which the specific governs the general, that all portions of a document must be given effect, that the general must be interpreted in light of the specific, and so on? If it is truly the Word of God, can we disregard any of it?

    I am left, after these questions, with the conclusion that your proposed approach results, ultimately, in theological anarchy because there is no authoritative way to decide which parts are in and which parts are out of the Bible. And anarchy is what we have in this denomination, including Teaching Elders who do not believe in Scriptural authority, salvation by Grace alone through faith, the atonement, the depravity of man, even sin. And there is no way to get rid of them. How do we protect the weaker sheep among us who hear these Teaching Elders and think they speak for the Church?

    1. Hi Whit. Thanks for the response. I just finished a new post on Fidelity and an switching gears back to this post.

      I believe there is abundant evidence that many progressives take seriously Biblical authority simply by the sheer time and effort they, as conservatives do, take translating, studying, teaching, and preaching on so many passages of Scripture. I have the honor through the scope of my ministry in the military and in the church of knowing many pastors both to the left and the right of me. Most I have known take the task at hand seriously.

      I do agree that interpretation is vital but part of that interpretation is discerning what God’s Word is for us today. For example, we can learn much studying Philemon without thinking that God wants us to have slaves today. So we never take any passage of Scripture out, but we read it in its context and seek to discern that God is saying to us today in this situation. We never disregard anything. But we discern how God was interacting with people then and then together seek to do what God would have us do today.

      I do not think this leads to anarchy. I think it leads to people really believing what they believe not because they are reading words from long ago but are seeking together God’s Word for them today.

      And Whit, I as a moderate (as I see myself) and many liberals would absolutely affirm not just Biblical authority, but salvation by grace through faith, the atonement, the sinfulness of humans, and sin itself. And I am with you that there does come a point where words cannot mean whatever people want them to mean. There are points where people do stray beyond the same faith as we understand it and they should not be Teaching Elders. Like I said in one of your examples, I would not vote for anyone to be a Teaching Elder who thought that all religions were equally valid (which surely leads to anarchy). I also note that while I accept that this has happened in your presbytery, that I do not find this the norm in the country (teaching elders holding highly unorthodox views). I have served in five presbyteries and seen hundreds of candidates presented and have never run across this personally.

      I never expect for folks to all agree on this issue. My only point that I firmly believe, is that God wants us to stay together and not tear apart our denomination because of the current disagreements.

      All the best Whit,


      1. I’m not trying to be difficult, or to get the last word, but I at least seem to be able to engage you on a rational level, and I am trying to understand how someone can read Romans 1 and not come to the same conclusion as I do.

        When it comes to the application of Torah to gentile Christians, we have Acts 15, which dovetales nicely with Lev. 17 & 18 making gentile Christians analogous with non-Jews living in the Land. And the role of women in those few letters, if interpreted as excluding women from leadership, are set against Biblical examples of women leaders. Philemon doesn’t opine on the lawfullness or morality of slavery, although written in the context of a slave-holding society. Anyway, there is always a REASON for disregarding or “reinterpreting” these passages in light of current contexts.

        But I don’t see that in the case of homerotic acts. Not only is the text uniform and widely spread in the Scripture, but I have never heard anyone give a reason why the particular prohibition is no longer applicable. The only reason given, including in your above response which I recognize is limited, is “we know better now” or some variation on that. So that is why I would ask you, how are homoerotic acts differnt now than they were (and don’t say because now we have committed life-long relationships because the evidence is they had those back then too)? Or how is the context today different than it was then, other than that the prevailing culture has changed? We are the same people, gentile Christians, talking about the same acts and relationships, within much the same cultural context (I think our cultural context is much closer to First Century Rome than to anything since until today). So what makes this time different?

        To put my questions in context, I’m a lawyer if you have not guessed. And we are frequently called upon to advocate for a legal position where the case law is not clear. We have to argue from analogy that certain past cases which are not identical should be applied to the current situation by analogy, and that the cases cited by our opponents are not analogous. In the latter case, we just can’t say, “his cases are not analogous”. There has to be a real distinction to which one can point and a judge can understand. This is where the progressives’ arguments all seem to fail. None of them explain how today is different from Paul’s time, and why that should make a difference.

        As Protestants, we don’t have a Pope who can settle things. Without some consensus on how Scripture gets interpreted, settling things, for us, will be next to impossible – which is why this dispute has been going on for decades.

      2. Whit: I don’t mind replying at all. I hope to engage folks in dialog. First, I would say that Paul is directly clear in his direction in Timothy about women having their heads covered and not speaking in worship. I, and most Christians, do not interpret that to apply in the 21st century world. Likewise, it is equally clear that Paul did not consider Philemon a sinner by owning slaves, he simply wanted Philemon to show Onesimus grace. But, I don’t think I am going too far to say that most Christians today would think than any person who owned another was sinning. Does that make Philemon a sinner by being a slave owner? Not in my book because Philemon lived in the 1st century, not the 21st century. If we believe that God’s Spirit has continued to move Christians and the Church beyond biblical times, this is not an issue. The bottom line is we should be operating by higher standards 20 centuries later.

        In reading Romans 1, Paul was clearly repulsed by some homosexual activity going on in his world. We have to remember that this culture was very different from our own. Having the populace in the civilized world literally believing in many gods, the worship of some which involved cultic sex practices, is blessedly not a part of our world. But in Paul’s world, there was no argument being made about same sex couples wanting to enter into a committed relationship. That, I would think, is a key difference.

        Note that when Paul wrote the letter there were no chapters. He speaks about many sins which would hit more than just 7% of the population. He also calls on us directly not to judge others in chapter two, verse one.

        Whit, for 13 years of ministry, I have largely let others argue out this issue. This is not the focus of my ministry at all. So what has changed? What has changed is folks proposing we divorce ourselves from one another.

        I never seek for people to see the church, world, or culture just as I do. I simply say the Church (and hopefully our denomination within), and God’s grace, is big enough to keep us together, focused on sharing the Gospel, and helping the many out there who need help.

        Thanks again for the continued discussion.

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