It is time to close this series of blogs with a projection of the role of the Bible in the evangelical church as we move forward. Let me start with my analysis of where we are today, the current ground game in play. I will do this by asking two defining questions.
First, where is the locus of authority in the evangelical church today? As mentioned above, Martin Luther and those who followed him used the Bible as a means of redirecting the authority in the church from trained hierarchical teachers to the individual believer. This is still true today (and will continue), but things have changed from Luther’s day. Now, men and women who have training and degrees in biblical studies have a small or non-existent voice of authority in the church. This may sound like sour grapes to some, but I have experienced this more than once in ministry. It is at the scholar’s peril that he or she challenges a cherished but unbiblical belief in a local church. I rarely do this anymore, but when I have, my advice will often be rejected in one of two ways. First, the church leader being challenged (exposed) may intimate that my Ph.D. in New Testament has corrupted me and turned me into a liberal, so I cannot be trusted. Second, a church leader will basically answer, “And so say you!” meaning, “Even if I’m wrong, I’m not changing my position.”
However, a strange corollary to this has emerged in the last decade, the nationally influential scholar/pastor. There are a few dozen evangelical pastors who have achieved a national platform through publications, blogs, tweets, conference speaking, and other media. While the university professor’s authority is dismissed, the pastor’s knowledge and authority are accepted. After all, he has written two books! This is a mixed bag, for some of these guys (and they are almost all male) are well educated, and I don’t know where it will come out. I admire hard working pastors and their dedication to preaching the gospel and building the church. Sometimes, though, the personality characteristics that lead to a megachurch (narrow focus, self-confidence, independence, flamboyance) make it difficult to participate in a community dialog about the meaning of biblical texts. Grant Osborne exhorted his students (including me) to always practice a “hermeneutics of humility,” realizing the best exegetes may make mistakes. We need more of this today.
All this is to say that the Bible is often a tool for the most influential authorities in the evangelical church, the influential pastors and their disciples. Most church members have no interest in Luther’s ideal of careful Bible study by the educated and godly layperson. They want their doctrine and theology delivered in 140-charcter bites, sometimes a series of these tidbits strung together as a sermon. (We used to call this “proof-texting,” which hatched a flock of bad approaches to the Bible that have now come home to roost.) I don’t see this trend changing soon. I await a rediscovery of the Bible and its authentic authority for a future generation.
Second question, what do evangelical church people want from the Bible? It is easier, maybe, to say what they don’t want. Many don’t want the Bible to stand in criticism to the way they live their lives. Rampant materialism, covert racism, excuses for immorality … please don’t bring any biblical truths to challenge these things! Many want comfort from the Bible, to know that God loves them and they don’t need to change anything to please him. Even more, many want to keep the Bible at arm’s-length so that its light of truth does not shine too brightly on their lives. This seems to me to be the role of the Bible for most Evangelicals for the foreseeable future. It is like the wise uncle who lives out of state. He may have good advice, but we don’t want to hear it, and it is easy to ignore him.
I do believe, however, there is a growing hunger among evangelical church members for a healthy meal of biblical truth. They have been fed baby food for too long. They want a biblical steak, or at least seasoned and sautéed sliced eggplant (for vegans).
I am encouraged by a couple of things that have happened in my church, Wildewood Christian Church in Papillion, NE. First, our pastor, Ron Wymer, has committed himself to include more doctrinal and theological meat in his sermons. He is doing a D.Min. degree and was challenged in a recent class to bring theology back to the pulpit, and he has been doing this. But Ron preaches from the Bible, not a systematics textbook. I applaud him, even if I disagree with him some time. For me, it is better to have a sermon where I might disagree a little, than a sermon that has nothing worth disagreeing about.
Also, this church has been gracious to allow me to teach in its “Wildewood Academy,” a Wednesday night program for adults who are desiring serious study of the Bible. We have been wading through the book of Revelation, and I am amazed at the response. We have almost outgrown our classroom. We are tackling some tough stuff, places in Revelation where I have to say, “I’m not sure what this means.” But we are seeing this great book of theology and worship in ways that speak to our lives and our faith. These faithful, Berean-type church members are a great encouragement to me and the church.
So there is hope …
Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University