Recently, I shared the following on my Instagram account via a quirky reel intended to catch the attention of the scroller and entice the viewer to read the caption. Here is the caption…
“The Bible is clear, they say.
It clearly says:
– Baptism by immersion
– Baptism at birth
– The Spirit is alive and active, and proof is your ability to speak in tongues
– The Spirit stopped working like this when the Canon of Scripture closed
– Women must be workers at home and never be allowed to teach a man
– Women are equal and can preach to men
– The earth is young
– The earth is old
– Women should cover their heads and never wear jewelry
– Men are the head of the households
– You have freedom to drink alcohol
– It’s sin to drink alcohol
Is your head spinning yet? Who’s right? Who’s wrong?
They all say, “The Scripture is CLEAR about this.” And some even go on to say, “Well, if you don’t believe this way, then you must NOT believe Jesus came and died and rose again. You must NOT believe the earth is round.”
[Too often] relationships are broken as the one who believes it’s SO CLEAR pulls away from the relationship and counts that brother or sister as dangerous to their own faith and walk with God.
Let it not be said of us.
Let us be people who lean in and not pull away when someone comes to a different conclusion about what the Bible is “clear on.”
Let us be people who study deeply and live generously.
Let us be people who love one another regardless of which side of an argument we find ourselves.
It’s okay to disagree.
It’s okay to think someone is wrong.
It’s okay to be wrong.
But lean in and love.
Listen to understand rather than listen to respond.
And always be willing to admit when you’re wrong.
‘By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ -John 13:34”
This Instagram post prompted some great discussions in the comments and via private messages, but I want to expand a bit more on it.
Because at the heart of the post was a desire to help Christians communicate graciously and persuasively what they believe in a way that honors humanity and gives space for the journey of others (and ourselves).
Many years ago now, when my husband I were freshly married, we found ourselves in a mediation session. We couldn’t come to an agreement on, well, basically anything. We were struggling to communicate without it escalating into anger and yelling, and we needed some help navigating the problems we were trying to solve. As we shared with this couple our differing opinions, I will never forget what one of the mediators said to me.
He said, “Leigh Ann, everything you’re telling your husband is right. He needs to hear what you’re saying, but, sister, your tone sucks.”
The way we communicate what we believe and why we believe it is important.
As Christians, we are called to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3). But our tone when communicating will make or break whether or not someone will actually listen, or we’ll be calling a mediator to bale us out.
Today, our Christian faith faces extreme pressure. Al Mohler summarizes this pressure in his commentary, A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity, this way:
“Assaults upon the Christian faith are no longer directed only at isolated doctrines. The entire structure of Christian truth is now under attack by those who would subvert Christianity’s theological integrity.”
Now, more than ever before, it’s important that we seek to know what we believe, why we believe it, and then be able to teach others also (Matthew 28:19-20). It’s that latter part of the command from Jesus I want to talk about today.
Is the Bible Clear? And if it is, should I say so?
I think we must first define what we mean by “clear.”
By definition “clear” means: easy to perceive, understand, or interpret. (Source)
This is tricky because a quick look at Christianity, and you’ll discover many denominations, which causes us to question how easy it actually is to perceive, understand, or interpret the Bible. In essence, how clear is the Bible, really, when we have so many denominations?
These denominations are (mostly) all Christian, but they (mostly) have differences on secondary issues. I say (mostly) because sometimes a denomination is formed based on core doctrine issues, that would, in fact, take it out of the Christian faith altogether. But for today, I want to focus on the (mostly) denominations. The ones where the core beliefs of Christianity are intact, but there may be differences on baptism or women in ministry, not core beliefs of the Christian faith. (Orthodoxy)
Back to our dictionary. To say, “The Bible is clear,” we’re by definition saying, “The Bible is easy to perceive, understand, or interpret.” This is misleading and sometimes false.
Is the Bible clear on some things? Yes, it is. But is it clear on everything? Not when we define “clear” as easy to perceive, understand, or interpret, which brings me to the next question.
What do we actually mean when we say to someone, “The Bible is clear”?
My answer will be subjective here. It’s impossible to pull a definition from Webster’s for someone’s meaning and intent. However, I know how I have used the statement, “The Bible is clear,” in the past. I’ve used it to communicate, “I am right,” rather than the fact that the Bible is easy to perceive, understand, or interpret. Basically, I was only focused on winning an argument, pointing out where someone was wrong, or affirming a conviction I held.
Using, “The Bible is clear,” as a way to prove theological high ground stops the flow of conversation and limits the flow of ideas, which Christianity has thrived on for centuries. Acts 15 is quickly becoming one of my favorite accounts, and examples, for how to maintain a free flow of ideas in the spirit of honor and quest for truth. I strongly encourage you to read the disagreement that broke out in the early church and how they dealt with the issue. Pay particular attention to the posture of honor of each person in attendance and the number of times silence is mentioned.
So, is the Bible clear (easy to perceive, understand, or interpret)?
On some things, yes. On other things, no. And we have to know the difference. We have to know when we can say, “The Bible is easy to perceive, understand, and interpret,” and when we can’t.
But won’t that undermine the authority of Scripture if we say something in the Bible is not clear? No, not at all. This just means we disagree on the interpretation of something that isn’t a core issue of Christianity. The Bible is the authority. It has a correct interpretation, yes, but how can you know if yours is the correct one?
This starts with knowing how to read and interpret Scripture and then be able to apply it to your life and culture (Biblical literacy). It is imperative that you do the work of studying and engaging the Scriptures to know what you believe and why you believe it. Because it isn’t until you know what you believe and why you believe it that you can go and teach others also, which is the point of true Christian maturity (Matthew 28:19-20). However, equally important to understanding what you believe, you must be willing to hold your conclusions and beliefs in humble recognition that this side of heaven you see dimly, not fully.
In the famous love passage in 1 Corinthians 13 that many of us have memorized from all the wedding ceremonies we’ve attended, toward the end Paul says this in verses 8-12:
“Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (NASB)
For some this can be scary, for others, this can be frustrating, and still, for others, this might cause you to throw the entire Christian faith out the window because “you can’t know the truth.” But here’s where I want to encourage you that the antidote to not understanding, or knowing what you believe the Scripture says, is not giving up and walking away. The antidote is to press forward in humility and understanding that on this side of Heaven, we simply cannot know everything. None of us can.
One of the most freeing passages for me in all of Scripture that has held me when I get frustrated with a text or stuck on an argument in Scripture is this:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,– Isaiah 55:8-9
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And my thoughts than your thoughts.”
I encourage you to read the rest of that chapter in Isaiah because it gives tangible examples of how His Word will accomplish that which He sends it forth to do. It never returns void, and if I miss an interpretation, it’s going to be okay. Because the point isn’t about being right, it’s about worshiping and obeying Him in as much as I know how. It’s about faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love (Matthew 22:36-40).
So now we ask…
What is the Bible clear about? And when can I say so?
Al Mohler says it this way in his commentary, A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity, “God’s truth is to be defended at every point and in every detail, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis.”
This is where it gets tricky though (tricky again? Yes. Tricky again…). If you were to ask five Christians what the essentials of the faith are, you are likely to get five different answers. However, let’s see if I can give it a go for you.
These will be the beliefs that are central to the Christian faith, things that are made clear in Scripture (easy to perceive, understand, and interpret), and supported by the church historically. To deny these truths would be to deny Christianity itself.
Essentials of the Christian faith:
- Authority of Scripture
- Human depravity (I am a sinner)
- There is only one God (Trinity)
- Deity and humanity of Jesus
- Christ’s atoning death (He died for my sins)
- Christ’s bodily resurrection (He rose from the dead)
- Saved by grace through faith (not my own doing or performance)
These are the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith. To deny any one of these would in essence stand in direct denial of what Christianity is. This is where we could say, “The Bible is clear.” But should we say so?
I think, yes. By definition, these foundational beliefs are easy to perceive, understand, and interpret. They can be shown to someone in Scripture, and they are not debated among orthodox believers. These are the issues we ALL agree on now, and historically.
However, even though the Bible is clear on these things, we must carry a spirit of humility and gentleness into the conversation. The tone we use when we say, “The Bible is clear on this,” matters because what we’re saying is true, but our tone must reflect and speak love to the one listening, or they won’t hear us at all. Remember, even here, we don’t want to use “The Bible is clear,” to prove we are right. We want to win the listener over to the truth, so be persuasive and let the Holy Spirit do the job of working belief in the hearts of the listeners.
These beliefs will create significant boundaries between Christians, and this is where denominations come into play. It’s also where the most argument and dissension in the church exists. Why? Because it’s at this level we form our understanding of the nature and function of the church as we are seeking to rightly apply the Word of God. Depending on how someone reads and interprets the Bible, will determine their convictions on varying issues, such as baptism, women pastors, and spiritual gifts, to name a few.
And it’s here that using the phrase, “The Bible is clear…” starts getting us into trouble. Because these beliefs are widely debated and not easy to perceive, understand, and interpret. By definition, they are not clear but require our careful study and our even more careful teaching to others.
But remember, based on a core tenet of the Christian faith, we can’t just believe what we want or make the Scriptures say what we want about these second-tier issues. The authority of Scripture must be adhered to because absolute truth exists, but Christians do not agree on the interpretations of these particular issues. And this is where we must hold space for each others’ journeys and for the work of the Holy Spirit. This is where saying, “The Bible is clear,” is not truthful or helpful to the conversation.
When you move outside the core tenets of the faith that binds all Christians together (first-tier above), you’re now moving into your personal conviction and interpretation of a widely debated topic (debated both now and historically). So, be humble, be open to reason, and be willing to listen carefully to your listener’s viewpoints. Again, read the Acts 15 account of an early church dispute and how they handled it, paying attention to the posture of honor and the number of times silence is mentioned.
If you need some new words to use besides, “The Bible is clear,” this is my personal approach: “I believe the Bible says ________, and here are the Scriptures I’ve found to support this view. What do you think?”
Finally, third-order beliefs are those things people might disagree on within their local church body, but it doesn’t keep them from submitting themselves to the church, nor should it break fellowship. Third-tier beliefs could be how someone chooses to educate their children, modesty, or end times.
Again, we can’t use the “The Bible is clear” statement here either because these beliefs are widely debated and not easy to perceive, understand, and interpret. Yes, we need to do a careful study of the Scriptures, spend time praying, and ask the Lord to give us wisdom, so that we can interpret and apply the Scriptures as accurately as we can. However, when it comes to sharing those convictions with others, we must do so with humility, understanding that they may come to a different conclusion.
If you’ve made it this far in the post, I want to appeal to you to consider your words and tone when talking to brothers and sisters in the faith and those not of the Christian faith.
Our world needs the truth of God’s Word now as much as it ever has, and you have been commissioned by God to teach others that truth (Matthew 28:19-20). But remember, we do see dimly right now. What is clear in Scripture to me may not be clear to you and vice versa. Therefore, we must be open to conversation, open to hearing opposing viewpoints, open to perhaps even having our own views change as we engage with the body of believers God has placed around us.
It is my desire to see Christians communicating graciously and persuasively what they believe in a way that honors humanity and gives space for the journey of others (and ourselves). To reference the beginning of my marriage again, my husband and I believed we could do more for the kingdom of God together than we ever could separately. I still believe this is true, and I believe it’s just as true for the Church (capital C). We are stronger together. We are made for community, made for relationships. Loving our neighbor as ourselves isn’t just about doing acts of kindness, it is about being kind. It is about being gracious. It is about being loving. It is about being humble. It is about being a good listener. It is about being so much more than doing, for it is from the heart that our actions flow. But that’s a topic for another day.
Therefore, as Paul charged Timothy, I charge you to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2), but do so without contempt, without anger, and with great love, for the greatest of these is love. Be a gracious and persuasive communicator of the things of God and let the Holy Spirit do the work of convincing, convicting, and changing the hearts of your listeners.
Resources for Further Reading:
- Albert Mohler, A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity
- Another Gospel?: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity, by Alisa Childers
- How to Determine Core Doctrine from Phylicia Masonheimer
- How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
- Until Unity, by Francis Chan
- Beautiful Resistance: The Joy of Conviction in a Culture of Compromise, by Jon Tyson
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