100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

#32: Why do Christians disagree on what the Bible teaches?

If the Bible was given to mankind by God in order to teach us and guide us through life, why do Christians have different ideas on what the Bible teaches us, and how our lives ought to be guided? It cannot be denied that there is great diversity in the Church regarding doctrine. However, it should also be said that there are so-called Churches which call themselves Christian, but simply are not. That is to say, there is such a thing as the “fundamentals” of the faith, which, if one denies them, they simply are not true Christians at all. And then there are doctrines which are not critical to one's salvation. When it comes to salvation, the Bible is abundantly clear... you must genuinely believe that Jesus Christ is both God and man, that He died as an atonement for our sins and that He rose again. And you must put your faith and trust in Him as your Lord and Saviour. Some doctrinal errors are worse than others because they affect the doctrine of salvation by faith alone; such as the idea that you must be baptised in order to be saved, or that you must speak in tongues in order to be saved. All error is bad and destructive and ought to be avoided; but at the same time, nobody is without error just as nobody is without sin. You don't have to perfectly understand the Bible in order to be saved.

Jesus said: When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth (John 16:13)

Some Christians take this passage too far. They read their Bibles and they say “I have the Holy Spirit in me, showing me what the true interpretation of Scripture is...” This allows them to read their Bibles so that the first idea or impression they get of Scripture is, to them, what the true interpretation must be. I have met Christians who think that way, and will tell you that people who don't agree with their theology clearly don't have the Holy Spirit and aren't genuinely saved. Well, despite having the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us and turns us away from sin and toward holiness, we do still sin. It's no different with our understanding of Scripture; we have the Holy Spirit guiding us into truth, but we are fallen people, and we have this conflict between our sinful nature and our new nature. Our understanding of the Bible is always influenced by our sinful nature, and by the assumptions we bring to the Text. If we think we get pure and perfect doctrine just implanted directly into our brains by the Holy Spirit when we read Scripture, we are no different than if we say “I cannot sin because the Holy Spirit has made me perfect.”

Whenever we read our Bibles, we come with many assumptions and preconceived ideas which can be very difficult to overcome, and prevent us from reading the Text any other way than how we expect it to read. For example, as we saw yesterday, it can be very difficult for us to read the book of 1 Corinthians as referring to “tongues” in a non-miraculous way. We just can't get past this mental block; the assumption that tongues are a miraculous thing affects our reading so that, if someone had never said “perhaps they're not miraculous” we might never read it that way. Since I had attended a Charismatic church from my childhood, I had been taught by the Church that tongues were a normal part of the Christian life. As I have mentioned, it wasn't until I eventually began attending Church as an independent adult that I even discovered there were any Christians at all who questioned this. If you have been taught that tongues are what Christians should expect, it's less likely that you would ever even question your own approach to the Bible in regards to tongues.

Another common source of error is to over-emphasise one Biblical truth over another. There are many many examples I could give of this, but perhaps to choose one that is most applicable to this context, we might consider how the Bible encourages us to preach God's Word and to explain it to others. One man in the Bible, while reading the Scriptures, was asked “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I unless someone guides me?” So Philip, who had spoken to him, began to explain the passage that the man had been reading. (Acts 8:30-40). On the other hand, we read that Jesus told his disciples “Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.” (Matthew 23:10). There can be a tendency for people to over-emphasise one Biblical truth over another, where one will say “Don't try to teach me doctrine. I'll read the Bible for myself, and that's all I need.” And yet others will say, “I can't possibly understand the Bible for myself! That's why we need preachers whom God has gifted with teaching to tell us what it all means.” No, God has indeed given us teachers (Ephesians 4:11-12); but we also are responsible and able to read and understand the Bible ourselves. (1 John 2:20,27). There's no contradiction, but rather, the understanding that what we are taught by others needs to be judged as to whether it is faithful to Scripture or not, and that when we teach others, we need to be humble and faithful to God's truth.

In my life, having had my theology challenged from time to time, and seeing that even long-held assumptions can be found wanting, it has caused me to develop a natural tendency to always be challenging my own assumptions, and to all the more pray for God's help in understanding the Scriptures. In as much as God allows sin in our lives, God allows us to hold false doctrines. The result is, (or should be), that we learn to rely more and more on Christ.

Since none of us can claim to have a perfect understanding of Scripture, we cannot put our firm trust in anyone's teaching, and we cannot allow ourselves to be filled with pride, but we must be humble in our estimation of our own grasp of Scripture. Jesus said...

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher [i.e. Jesus], and you are all brothers. (Matthew 23:8)

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