The Polarization of “Biblical Christianity”
A guest post by Michael W. Pahl
If you didn’t hear about the World Vision kerfuffle last week, you were either still in winter hibernation or nowhere near the US (yes, the kerfuffle was about World Vision in the US, notglobally). In the space of 48 hours, World Vision US first opened their hiring gates to people in committed same-sex marriages, then slammed the gates back shut.
During those tumultuous few days there were two dominant Christian voices demanding attention.
Some Christians sought to rally the troops, appealing to the Bible: “Hold the line on biblical morality! Stand firm on thebiblical view of heterosexual marriage and homosexuality!Those who aren’t with us are against us!”
Other Christians also sought to rally the troops, also appealing to the Bible: “Be like Jesus! Focus on the children in poverty, the little ones and least of these! Let God’s sun shine on the righteous and the unrighteous! Those who aren’t against us are with us!”
There was very little middle ground given, only polarization. Those who might have seen themselves as somewhere in the middle, or who didn’t even realize they were on a spectrum, were called to take sides.
The World Vision ruckus was only the latest in a line of once-a-month mêlées among Christians appealing to the Bible over some hot-button issue. And as Christians repeat this reactionary, polarizing approach to every issue that comes up, month after month, year after year, sides are indeed being taken. Some are not even taking sides—tragically, they’re abandoning the attempt to be either “Christian” or “biblical.”
There are, in fact, many different kinds of “biblicalChristianities.” No, the term “biblical” doesn’t guarantee any kind of uniformity in Christian belief or practice—just read a little Christian Smith (for you give-me-the-research types) or Rachel Held Evans (for you give-me-the-stories types). This is not surprising given how diverse the biblical writings are, from ancient Israelite stories and poetry to ancient Christianbiographies and letters, in three different languages and dozens of specific settings, across several centuries of writing and editing and compiling. It’s even less surprising given how diverse the Bible’s interpreters are.
But this ongoing series of very public clashes among Christians demonstrates that, among those who want to be both genuinely “Christian” and authentically “biblical,”people are gathering around two distinguishable poles. Thisis not only the case within Evangelicalism and its offshoots,though certainly many of these “biblical Christians” are or have been connected to the Evangelical movement in Western Protestantism. The desire to be both “Christian” and “biblical,” to be both recognizably part of the historic stream of Christianitywith distinctly Christian beliefs and practices, and looking to the Bible as the primary source for Christian theological and ethical discernment—really just a striving for “Christian orthodoxy”—runs beyond Evangelicalism and cuts across the whole range of Christian traditions.
What are these two poles that are both attracting and dividing Christians who seek to live according to the Bible? In simplistic terms, they are reflected in the idea of “biblical Christianity” itself: the two poles are the Bible and Jesus.
Now this claim needs to be carefully nuanced. As I’ve just affirmed, all “biblical Christians” look to the Bible for guidance in belief and practice, just as they all center their faith on Jesus. It isn’t helpful to claim otherwise, and it can even be hurtful to do so. Nor can we pit the Bible against Jesus: the Bible contains our best witness to Jesus, and Jesus himself stood in a religious tradition that looked to the Scriptures as divinely authoritative for life and faith.
So what do I mean when I say that “biblical Christians” are gathering around the poles of “Bible” and “Jesus”? As problematic as it may be, I’m afraid the best way to answer this succinctly is by giving some broad generalizations. I’ll try to be as careful as possible in how I sketch this.
When needing guidance for how to live or what to think as a Christian, some will look first to the Bible as canon—for convenience let’s call them “Bible Biblical Christians” (BBCs). This comes out of the conviction that, as 2 Timothy 3:16 puts it, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” BBCs see the whole Bible, in all its parts, as being uniformly authoritative for Christians: the New Testament is not more so than the Old, Jesus’ teaching is not more so than Paul’s. While many BBCs undoubtedly have a naïve, literalistic approach to Scripture, this need not be the case. Others have a sophisticated approach to Scripture that recognizes genre, context, and even some degree of theological progressionthrough Scripture.
By contrast, when needing guidance for how to live or what to think as a Christian, others—let’s call them “Jesus Biblical Christians” (JBCs)—will look first to Jesus as presented in the New Testament, even especially the Gospels. This comes out of the conviction that Jesus, as the one to whom the Scriptures witness, is the clearest and fullest revelation of God (e.g. John 1:14, 18; Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:1-3). While they see the whole Bible as inspired Scripture, JBCs effectively see a hierarchy of authority within Scripture: Jesus’ life and teachings and death and resurrection are pre-eminent, as presented in the New Testament and anticipated in the Old. While some JBCseffectively have a Marcionite approach to the Old Testament or a highly critical view of Paul, this need not be the case. Many have an integrated approach to Scripture that recognizes a unity-in-diversity in the biblical writings pointing to and centered on Christ.
These differences are not about “biblical inerrancy” or “biblical truth” as some might claim; rather, they are differences in what one might call the “practical authority” of the Bible. Again, both groups see the Bible as divinely authoritative—both perspectives are, in fact, grounded in Scripture—but they differ in how that Scriptural authority works itself out in practice. And, as one might expect, these differences in the Bible’s practical authority tend toward different emphases in belief and practice.
“Bible Biblical Christians” tend to focus more on “individualsalvation and personal morality.” For BBCs, “Jesus at the center” means an emphasis on Jesus’ death as atoning sacrifice for our sins and Jesus’ resurrection as God’s triumph over death. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can have the assurance of both divine forgiveness and eternal life. For BBCs, “Bible for divine guidance” means an emphasis on the Bible asthe source for a particular system of theology and as theguidebook for the particular moral decisions we face in life. This does not mean BBCs have no concern for matters of social justice—many do, in fact—but the tendency is to see this as aconsequence of individual salvation and an extension of personal morality. The net result of all this is that BBCs are the more “conservative” on theological and social issues.
“Jesus Biblical Christians” tend to focus more on “personaldiscipleship for social renewal.” For JBCs, “Bible for divine guidance” means an emphasis on the Bible as witness to Jesusand his inauguration of the “kingdom of God” with its broad implications for justice and peace in the world. For JBCs, then, “Jesus at the center” means an emphasis on Jesus’ life and teaching culminating in his death and resurrection, and on our role as disciples of Jesus seeking to obey his teachings and follow his example. This does not mean JBCs have no concern for individual salvation and personal morality—many do, in fact—but the tendency is to set these within a wider context ofpersonal discipleship and social renewal. The net result of all this is that JBCs are the more “progressive” on theological andsocial issues.
I’m pretty sure not everyone will agree with my characterizations of “Bible Biblical Christians” and “Jesus Biblical Christians,” and undoubtedly my descriptions could use some work. I can certainly think of more that could be said about how BBCs and JBCs read Scripture, do theology, or live out their faith. But this is what I’m seeing, and incidents such as the World Vision commotion back it up: along the widespectrum of Christians who seek to live according to the Bible, there is extreme pressure to move toward one or the other of these poles.
This explains, I think, a number of things that have been happening over the past several years. The “young, restless, and Reformed” movement on the one hand, and “naked Anabaptism” on the other. The resurgence of Fundamentalism or “conservative Evangelicalism” on one side, and the “I’m done with Evangelicalism, just give me Jesus” folks on another.CBMW and CBE. TGC and RHE. And more.
Forget terms like “Evangelical”: the designation is now irrelevant.
Forget some new battle for “inerrancy”: it’s not about biblical inerrancy, but large questions of biblical interpretation.
Forget conventional distinctions among Christian traditions or Protestant denominations: those are still there, distinctions inchurch structure and liturgy and baptism and more, but they are no longer the watershed issues they used to be.
You can even forget stereotypical age demographics: this patternis evident from young to old.
We’re moving toward two distinguishable “biblicalChristianities,” two major versions of “Christianity grounded in Scripture,” two different perspectives on the practical authority of Scripture. We’re seeing Christian orthodoxy gathering around two poles: “Bible” and “Jesus.”
Is there a way to stop this polarization? Should we even try? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s inevitable. Perhaps it’s even a good thing. Perhaps all this seismic shifting and sifting will bring greater clarity for people on what it means to be a Christian—or at least what version of Christianity they are rejecting.
Still, one can’t help but hear the prayer of Jesus echoing across the increasingly v divide: “May they become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me” (John 17:20-23).
Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.