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It has often been said that our culture has lost its moorings. Like many times and places in history, ours is an era when everyone does what is right in his own eyes (cf. Judges 17:6). So this is just the sort of time God loves best, when he can demonstrate once more that he came in Christ to call not the righteous, but those who have lost their moorings.

But that is not our instinct at such times. When morals go awry, when people behave badly, our first thought is to hammer them with law: "Stop doing that. Start doing this." In the home and in church, that is certainly my instinct. And I'm often tempted to bring God in as an ally: "The Bible teaches … so you should …"

Thus I perfectly understand the drive of those Christians who call this morally unmoored culture to return to "biblical values." But too often, the call to return to biblical values is tethered to an attempt to manipulate people into correct behavior. Note the recent kerfuffle raised by the Florida Family Association—whose goal is to "defend, protect, and promote traditional biblical values"—when they pressured Lowe's to pull ads from the TV show All American Muslim.

This use of "biblical values" corresponds mostly to the agenda of political conservatives. But conservatives do not have a corner on biblical values. So periodically, we hear calls from moderates and liberals to make political decisions based on "biblical values," which in this context means concern for the poor and peacemaking, among other concerns.

Every once in a while, political leaders join the chorus, though they have to be careful. In December, British prime minister David Cameron got into hot water when he suggested, at a ceremony honoring the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible at Westminster Abbey, that "the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today." He suggested that adhering to biblical values would counter "the absence of any real accountability or moral code" which recently allowed "some bankers and politicians to behave with scant regard for the rest of society." He also noted the British riots of last summer and "the ongoing terrorist threat from Islamist extremists." He said "moral neutrality and passive tolerance just isn't going to cut it anymore."

One can certainly understand British frustration, given all they've endured this past year. Again, when things go awry morally, we instinctively want to bring the weight of moral law, in this case "biblical values," to bear.

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But this strategy never seems to work. First, it is no longer persuasive in religiously pluralistic cultures or officially secular states. People in such societies are deeply suspicious of values that might arise from one religious tradition. Second, there is human nature. The more you tell someone to submit to biblical values, the more likely they are to rebel against them. Biblical values outside of the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are heard as nothing more than oppressive law.

In the church, things can be a different. Grounded first in the forgiveness of Christ, talk of biblical values can be salutary. The Bible's ethical teachings then are seen for what they are: guidelines for living a life of love. They are not law, but concrete ways to live as people redeemed by grace.

But again, our natural instinct is to turn even these salutary teachings into mere law even in the church. I have seen signs of this in my own tradition, Anglicanism. We conservatives in the Episcopal Church kept insisting on the need for the bishops to "submit to the authority of the Bible" on the issue of sexual ethics, and when the Episcopal Church refused, a few years ago we took our Bibles and started our own church.

Or I should say "churches." Because we've managed to split into a variety of Anglican movements and sub-denominations since. And the splits go on, with eight bishops of the Anglican Mission in the Americas recently resigning from the Province of Rwanda, a province under which they had only a few years ago publicly committed to live in submission. This suggests to me that our motives may not have been as grace-filled as we imagined at the time. Speaking personally, I can certainly say mine weren't. I was infuriated and not going to take insubordination to the Bible anymore!

When the Bible is used like this—mostly as mere law—it creates a church culture in which splits and splits of splits happen, even when the authority of the Bible as such is no longer at stake.

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I find it interesting that when we conservatives defend the "authority of the Bible" or "biblical values," we usually are trying to get other Christians to submit to some doctrine (like the Virgin Birth or substitutionary atonement) or some ethic (like forbidding extra-marital sex or R-rated movies). We use the Bible as leverage to get others to submit.

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Let me be clear. I believe in the Virgin Birth, in substitutionary atonement, that sex should be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, and so forth. I'm on board with the classic orthodox doctrines and ethics because I believe they are taught by or inferred from the Bible, which I recognize as divinely inspired revelation.

But I don't believe the Bible is fundamentally a moral power tool. The Bible is not a law book as much as it is a gift book, not so much about living right as about being right with God because of what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.

To be sure, the Bible is in part given for "reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." But the goal is not to get people to toe the line but, as Paul puts it, that we all "may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16–17, ESV). It seems to me that if such instruction is to lead to "good work," it will need to be grounded in the forgiveness of God, in the gracious death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only then will our work be grounded in love, and only then will it will produce the fruit of the Spirit. Otherwise the instruction will turn into mere law.

I believe we're tempted by law more than we like to admit. I find it interesting that few of us exalt the Bible's inerrant authority or extol its verbal inspiration when it comes to the Bible's message of God's love. I hear few of us saying, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us (2 Cor. 5:19)—we can count on this because it's in God's inerrant Word!" Or, "For freedom Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1)—yes, we really are free from the law, because God's infallible Word says so." Instead, we are more apt to say, "You can't have homosexual relations because the Bible forbids it." Or ,"You need to believe in the Virgin Birth because the Bible teaches it." The Bible has become not the revelation of good news so much as a book of morals.

When we do this—and again, I write autobiographically here!—we inadvertently undermine biblical teaching. If one thing is clear in Scripture it is this: The law cannot justify us. Trying to submit to it, or trying to make others submit to it, only makes things worse. In fact, proclaiming the law and its authority—even its biblical authority!—will work the exact opposite of the effect we intend. As Paul put it, law only arouses our "sinful passions" (Rom. 7:5). Tell me I have to do something, have to submit to some standard or law, and I only want to rebel. That's what the Bible teaches about human nature. And our experience with law confirms it every day. So the more we use the Bible as a legal bludgeon, the more people are going to rebel against it.

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So no wonder that whenever we use the Bible as a law book it fails to convince others. And no wonder that it can so quickly create a culture of fear among us. We who have formed a new church grounded in the "authority of the Bible" can begin imagining that we now have to be extra vigilant. We have to keep an eye on one another, lest one of us stray from the path of biblical morality. We have justified our separate existence on biblical authority, and if people stop obeying the Bible, our existence is a sham.

When this happens, it creates churches in which people become increasingly distrustful and judgmental toward one another—to the point that a new split is nearly inevitable. Church history, from ancient to present, is testimony to this pattern.

The solution is not to abandon biblical authority. We Protestants do not want to abandon sola scriptura, the Bible as our rule of faith and practice. But the first point of biblical faith is not law but grace, not obedience but forgiveness. The Bible's authority is not grounded in its commands and doctrines but in its startling message of good news. If you start with the demands of doctrines and ethics, you end up with a fearful and unforgiving church, and a God nobody wants anything to do with. But if you start with that wonderful message—that God has provided a Savior for us, the morally unmoored!—then all manner of doctrines and ethics naturally spring forth, doctrines and ethics that foster freedom and life.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit (Baker). He also blogs at www.markgalli.com.


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Previous SoulWork columns include:

A Christmas Prayer | We, like the shepherds in the field, like the woman at the tomb, are astonished, trembling in wonder and in fear. (December 22, 2011)
Why We Need More 'Chaplains' and Fewer Leaders | What's a pastor for? (December 1, 2011)
The Confidence of the Evangelical | Why the Spirit, not the magisterium, will lead us into all truth. (November 17, 2011)

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SoulWork
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous SoulWork Columns: