Friday, September 1, 2023

Biblical but Not Christlike

I ran across a quote this week that is so good, I really might get it tattooed backwards on my forehead so I can see it every time I look in the mirror. It’s from Stephen Mattison, who I don’t know and couldn’t find in a quick online search. But I love his quote; it’s one of those that I wish I’d come up with:

Of all the things Satan could’ve used to destroy Christ, he decided to tempt Jesus with the Bible. In the same way, Satan will attack Christianity by tricking people into believing they’re “being biblical” without being Christlike at all.

     To be Christlike is to love your neighbor as yourself.

     To be “biblical” is to quote verses that align with your personal agendas and contextualize scripture according to your own opinions. 

     Too many people are being “biblical” without being Christlike. May God help us sacrificially love others to the best of our ability.

On second thought, I guess it’s a little too long to tattoo on my forehead. 

     But it is something I need to remember. How about you?

     What Mattison’s definition of “biblical” assumes is that we tend to use Scripture to backstop our own opinions and preconceptions. I do think that there’s a way of interacting with Scripture that minimizes this tendency, and to that degree gives us a chance to let the Bible shape us and change us. After all, one of the chief ways we know what it is to be Christlike is through what we see of Jesus in the Bible. 

     As someone who cares about being “biblical,” though, I’m not ready to say that it’s necessarily antithetical to being “Christlike.”

     Mattison hints at a synthesis of the two: let Jesus’ ethic of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbors at least as much as we love ourselves also guide and order our reading of the Bible. Sometimes, I think, people who want to be “biblical,” like I do, accidentally end up prioritizing the Bible over Jesus. 

     For instance: In my fellowship of churches, the Churches of Christ, we have historically emphasized the epistles of the New Testament and Acts over every other part of the Bible. I think that’s changed somewhat, but it hasn’t been long that you would be far more likely to hear a sermon in our churches that quoted Paul than one  that quoted Isaiah or Leviticus — or even Jesus.

     This is because the epistles and Acts are where we’ve gotten much of our theology and practice. It’s easier. There seems to be more in those parts of the Bible that’s directly relevant and familiar. We’ve tended to regard the Bible as a collection of data points about particular topics, collated and synthesized all this data, and come to our conclusions. And a disproportionately large set of that data has come from those parts of the Bible.

     And so, when we look at Jesus, we tend to look at him through the epistles and Acts. 

     We dismiss the scriptures of Israel, and sometimes even the Gospels, as having to do with the “old covenant” or “old dispensation,” and therefore not authoritative for us. Which is odd, since Paul himself told Timothy that the scriptures made him “wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” It’s odd, since the Gospels were written for the church every bit as much as Acts was. (Luke himself wrote Acts and a Gospel.)

     Of course, Luke and Paul and the other epistle-writers intended for their works to be understood in relation to Jesus. Paul’s letters, the book of Acts, the Gospels, Revelation — none of them mean anything at all without  Jesus, and their authors knew that. 

     Of course, Jesus understood what he was doing as a fulfillment of (not an undoing of) what we refer to as “the Old Testament.” 

     Jesus’ opponents claimed that they were being “biblical” in their concern for Sabbath-keeping. After all, their “Bibles clearly said” that no work was to be done on the Sabbath.

     But, somehow, they found themselves on the wrong side of an argument with Jesus over whether he should heal someone on the Sabbath. Not once. Not twice. Not three times. At least four times they had this exact debate. No wonder Jesus was frustrated with them. No wonder he said about a woman he healed in the synagogue, “Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” They weren’t so “biblical” that they didn't care for their animals on the Sabbath. What in the world should keep them from caring about a woman who needed to be healed? 

     What kept them from caring — or at least from seeing the need of that woman and the other people Jesus “violated Scripture” to heal — was the way they read the Bible. I hope that bothers us, at least a little. 

     “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ,” Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. Paul knew his Scriptures and could have told the church to follow him in that. But he didn’t. What qualified him as a paradigm for living as a Christian was that he followed Jesus. Because of an inconvenient chapter break, the specific way that he followed Jesus gets lost: “For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”

     May that always be our intent — not to do what’s good for ourselves, but for others. That’s biblical, but more importantly it’s what we learn from Jesus. 

     Using Mattison’s terms, being “Christlike” must come before being “biblical.” Jesus is the rubric by which we should be checking our interpretations of the Bible. Any conclusion we draw from Scripture that doesn’t lead us to prioritize devotion to God and the well-being of our neighbors is not likely to be correct. Any reading of the Bible that obstructs people from entering God’s kingdom is just wrong. Any interpretation that demands sacrifice without offering mercy is mistaken. Any exegesis that values religious observance over spirituality, gratitude for God’s love, and human flourishing is wrong-headed. Any application of Scripture that would limit God’s work in the world to what we can categorize, understand, and give our stamp of approval to is far too narrow. If our reading of the Bible is primarily about proving a point, winning an argument, or finding support for a position instead of learning to give ourselves up for God and the people around us, perhaps we need to go back for a new reading. One shaped more by what we know of Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit.

     Being Christlike is to be shaped by our relationship with Jesus, to learn from him as a disciple. To let him  teach us everything — even how to read our Bibles. 

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