Evangelicals are an independent lot, as evidenced at the recent meeting of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The purpose of this gathering was to thresh out ethical guidelines for the church’s public and institutional life. It would be difficult to find a group more dedicated to conservative Protestant theology. Yet no one seemed to agree with anybody. Every issue became a battleground.
On war and peace, some were pacifists (and not all the same kind of pacifists, either). Others were nuclear pacifists; still others defended a just war. Those espousing the last position disagreed on whether the American government ought to cut or increase its military budget. On social justice, some argued that God sides with the poor. Others hesitated even to use such words as injustice or repression, saying they have become code words for an anti-Christian “liberation theology.”
On the sanctity of life issue, some argued that all abortions represent murder. Others were willing to allow abortions in order to save the life of the mother, or in the case of rape and incest. And each of these positions disagreed as to the extent Christians should impose their views on a non-Christian society.
On marriage and the family, some were adamant that the wife belonged in the home. The husband is the head of the family, and his wife is to submit to him in all things not requiring disobedience to God. Others argued for a basic equality of rights and roles in society, including the freedom of women to be ordained to Christian ministry and to teach and exercise authority over men.
And so it went.
Some of those attending the conference experienced a severe case of shock. How could Christians, all of whom believed the Bible to be the infallible guide for faith and life, find themselves in such chaotic disagreement?
Yet most realized such pluralism among like-minded brethren should surprise no one. From the beginning of Christianity, the church has arrived at no mutual agreement over many doctrines. The mode and meaning of baptism, infant baptism, the nature and significance of the Lord’s Supper, predestination, perseverance of the saints, the relationship between the millennium and the second coming of Christ, and a host of other doctrines have divided the church.
If on these broader doctrinal issues the church has been unable to agree, is it so surprising that we were at loggerheads in trying to apply biblical teaching to current social issues? It is one thing to interpret the meaning of relevant scriptural passages. Explaining how one should apply those biblical principles becomes especially troublesome.
Application, moreover, adds at least two new factors beyond those involved in the interpretation of the text. First, the Bible does not purport to give specific guidance on all issues for all Christians living in every age. Second, the world is constantly changing. Even if the Bible did give us explicit directions for one situation, new societal structures and new problems would require continuous re-adaptation and re-application of the Scripture.
Yet if Scripture details no clear and specific guidance for our problems, how can evangelicals become salt and light in our society as Jesus has commanded us? The world is not interested in our pious guesses; it has quite enough of its own (though they are seldom pious). Unbelievers will simply set one evangelical opinion against another and blithely ignore any Christian contribution to the moral guidance of society.
Unless, of course, they see our disagreements (and how we handle them) as a sign of vitality and maturity. And that can only happen when Bible-believing Christians are able to engage each other in honest, civil dialogue on the difficult issues confronting society. Some encouraging aspects of this conference suggest that might be happening.
Learning From The Fray
First, the inerrantists at this conference learned to debate serious matters without becoming enemies. They argued passionately, yet with civility and, indeed, with a love for those with whom they disagreed. In fact, most who attended do not think the debating was all that heated.
Second, those who participated in the lively give-and-take of the disputes found that such disagreements broadened their horizons. They recognized that other believers were not arguing simply out of a careless attitude toward the Word of God or a selfish desire to escape from its force. Rather, the debates grew out of each individual’s strong commitment to the inerrant Word and a clear conviction that the Spirit of God had guided their thinking. Sometimes convictions were deepened. On other occasions, the participants were led to rethink some aspects of their positions. In the process, one thing became clear: True tolerance among Christians requires a wrenching of the soul in which one seriously considers another’s views, even when he or she sharply disagrees with those views.
Third, inerrantists learned their diversity is not as great as it first appears. Commitment to the Bible as the infallible rule of faith and practice does make a difference. The Bible sets forth unmistakable teaching about the nature of God, man, and the world. This framework gives shape and boundary to all other issues, including troublesome applications of Scripture to the ethical problems of our day. Though it was impossible to have unanimity on the specific issues, the group signed a statement committing them to the belief that the Bible provides answers to society’s problems.
Even in those areas of sharpest contention, there was clear agreement as to the basic thrust of how the Bible is to be applied. For example, those who allow for divorce and remarriage consider it a tragic breakdown in personal relationships and in society. They are unutterably opposed to the easy divorce and careless approach to remarriage so prevalent in society.
Holy Scripture is, indeed, infallible; but our interpretations and our applications are not. To confuse scriptural infallibility with human fallibility robs Christians of their ability to work effectively both with other believers for the kingdom of God and with unbelievers for the good of humankind.
So perhaps the best lesson we can learn from this conference is that commitment to biblical inerrancy does not guarantee agreement on how we are to apply biblical principles to today’s social problems. Yet the process of looking at the Word with other believers, wrestling with the diverse interpretations, and supporting one another in Christian love nudges us nearer what is truly right and just.
By Kenneth S. Kantzer.
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