The myth of the Bible-based church
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I have an announcement to make that will be self-evident to some people and will scare (or anger) the living hell out of others.
There is no such thing as a Bible-based church.
Go to 1000 different such churches and you will hear about 1000 different interpretations of the Bible. Okay, maybe 10 or 20 of them will more or less agree.
Think about it. When someone asks the question, “Is this a Bible-based church?” what do they actually mean? Let’s walk it through. The person has posed the question. The pastor says, “Well, I’ll let you listen to the sermon and decide for yourself.” The sermon is not simply laced with scripture, but awash in it. It paints a full and comprehensive picture — based squarely on things in the Bible — about what it means to live a godly life. But the questioner leaves angry and tells people, “Church X doesn’t teach the Bible,” or “Church X doesn’t teach the FULL counsel of God’s Word,” or maybe even, “Avoid that church. They are New Age.”
What has actually happened here? Answer: the questioner heard the same message as everybody else — he/she just disagreed with it. And that is, quite simply, all that can be said about it.
I had something similar to this happen years ago when I was first starting the church I now pastor. A guest attended church the first time and I was preaching from John 15, about remaining “in Christ.” After the service he dressed me down for not teaching the “full counsel of God.” What was the scenario? He was a Calvinist. Apparently I had made the dreadful mistake of preaching a sermon from my basically Wesleyan perspective and that was enough for him to write me off, essentially, as a heretic. The point, of course, is that his objections to my teaching say almost nothing about the sermon and a great deal about that man.
Having established this, I can say that I have never preached a sermon that was not solidly Bible-based. But I have preached many sermons that man, and many others, would find objectionable. And those objections, again, say more about the objectors than about the sermons or about me. Because when we speak of a Bible-based church,” we are almost never speaking of anything more than whether we agree or disagree with that church’s understanding and teaching of the Bible.
The evangelical failure to see this is stunning. It’s not that Christians can’t find many events or ideas we agree on, it’s that we disagree so passionately about the meanings of them. Very few Christians would claim Jesus did not exist, but there is no universal Christian understanding of what Christ’s birth accomplished, signified, or meant. Very few would claim that there is simply no such thing as hell (although some do), but some Christians seem to believe that nearly everyone is going there — except themselves and their group, of course — while others believe there is simply no way of knowing, and still others believe very few will end up in hell. Almost none deny the crucifixion, but there is no consensus on what it accomplished in the spiritual realm. Few deny the resurrection, but there are many theological understandings of what the resurrection accomplished and how. Jesus clearly said he is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father but by him. Some say this means that anyone and everyone who hasn’t prayed the sinner’s prayer will be lost and damned to hell forever. Others say God sort of grades on a curve, to allow for those who have never heard of Jesus or lived and died before he was born. Others say Jesus does save all, but that Jesus can accomplish this through any belief system and regardless of whether one knows (or cares) that it is him or not.
Need I go on? Do you think these differences show up in your average Sunday sermon? Constantly. Yet some people are so sure they have it right that they will get angry at any pastor or church that teaches something different than what they were taught. But I say it again: there simply is no such thing as a Bible-based church. Nearly all Christian churches say they are Bible-based and yet that tells you absolutely nothing about what to expect when you get inside and hear the sermon, nor — more importantly — anything about the kind of people you can expect to meet after the service.
What if we scrapped that whole idea completely and adopted another standard? What if the standard for a church being Christian was not whether or not they are “Bible-based,” but whether or not the people in the church love each other? What if it was about guests learning about truth and reality (both of which are among the best synonyms for God) and learning how to live accordingly? What if it was about whether or not the people in a church were known for being big tippers after the service when they head to the restaurants? What if it were about being able to see the “fruits” (i.e., “evidence”) of the Spirit in the lives of the people?
That would be so much more meaningful. It would say something tangible and measurable about the extent to which God has truly been allowed to shed his light in the hearts of the people. But something tells me the last thing we would ever want to do is to expect to see actual life change. Far less challenging to make it about beliefs than the tangible evidence of the God-life growing up in a person and a church.